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New signs highlight an array of fresh produce at the Los Compadres Market and Restaurant. HEAC staff built a relationship with the owner over three years.

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Watsonville Latino Youth

Jóvenes SANOS enlists convenience store owners in fighting obesity among Latino youth

Watsonville High School, like many California high schools, has an open-campus policy that allows students to purchase and eat food off-campus during the lunch period. While popular among students, such policies increase exposure to opportunities for unhealthy food choices contributing to obesity and other chronic diseases, as youth stream daily into nearby convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

Watsonville is located in Santa Cruz County which in 2004 ranked among the top 10 counties in California for incidence of childhood obesity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drilling down into those statistics, "we learned that 36 percent of Watsonville's 5th, 7th, and 9th graders were overweight or obese, compared to 24 percent of Santa Cruz's 5th, 7th, and 9th graders," says Angela Rocchio, a community organizer and youth program coordinator, citing Public Health Advocacy Data (2004). "Therefore we decided to focus our efforts in the City of Watsonville."

Motivated to take action, a group of concerned students formed Jóvenes SANOS, whose goal is raise awareness about childhood obesity and to implement policies that promote healthy nutrition and physical activity in the city of Watsonville. Jóvenes means "young," and sanos means "healthy"; as an acronym, the letters SANOS stand for Saludables (healthy), Actividades (activities), Nutricion (nutrition), Opciones (options), and Sabaduria (knowledge). The youth advocacy program Jóvenes SANOS is part of a larger program called Go for Health!, a county-wide collaborative project of United Way of Santa Cruz County involving 150 agencies committed to addressing childhood obesity.

"Watsonville is 75% Latino and low-income," notes Rocchio, "and the students recognized that the community depends on fast food and convenience stores, which can look like a good deal when you don't have much money. So educating fellow students and local business owners became a centerpiece of their efforts working with local markets."

The Watsonville Healthy Markets Pilot Program is just one student initiative taking an "environmental prevention" approach in neighborhood markets, Watsonville schools, and city officials to make more walkable and bike-able. Each year 20 to 30 Jóvenes SANOS members, ages 14 to 18, receive stipends of $10 an hour for their participation in a range of initiatives. Eight of these students in the afterschool program, structured around a series of assignments related to creating healthier neighborhood markets. They attend meetings, conduct interviews and surveys, compile reports, and give public presentations.

"The youth are highly motivated and want to make a real impact in their community," says Rocchio. "They write and rehearse their own script of talking points, make appointments with store owners, and go to meet with them in person. They say, 'This is what we can do for you, and this is what you can do for your community.'"

The work, at times, can be discouraging and offers lessons in persistence, in not giving up hope. "It can be a challenge even getting the owners to commit to a time to meet," says Rocchio. "Some flat-out say no—they don't take the youth seriously. But if they do take the time, they are very likely to say yes, they want to be a part of it."

So far, five markets in neighborhoods surrounding the high school have signed on to the Watsonville Healthy Markets Pilot Program: El Primo Produce, Frúteria Quetzal, Santa Rosa Market, La Colmena, and Pajaro Food Center. A concise one-page contract spells out the parties' agreements. Among other things, market owners agree to increase the opportunity for the Watsonville community to buy nutritious foods (including fresh fruits and vegetables); to display advertisements promoting healthier foods, and fewer advertisements for beer, cigarettes, and junk food; to provide healthy foods at child's eye level around cash registers; and to be contacted by students for monthly updates. For their part, students agree to provide training to market owners and their staff, and nutrition posters for display in the store; and to actively promote the store among family and friends and as part of the group's ongoing publicity efforts.

"Another thing we provide for owners is a gift basket of fruit, which we ask them to display near the cash register, where it can be a contrast to the candy bars that are usually found there," says Rocchio.

The Healthy Markets Pilot Program won early endorsement from Watsonville Mayor Antonio Rivas who has demonstrated his support by appearing with students at media events and by honoring market owners with "Wealth of Health" awards during a City Council meeting. Media coverage has included March 2009 stories in the Watsonville and Santa Cruz papers spotlighting Jóvenes SANOS and its successful market interventions.

The program has not hurt business—check-ins by students with market owners show sales increases in some cases. And as part of a larger strategy across multiple sectors (schools, markets, and city planning), it has contributed to substantial health improvement. In 2007, Santa Cruz County had fallen from "top 10" to 29th place (out of 58 California counties) in the CDC's obesity ranking, and Rocchio feels confident that this number will continue to drop as environmental changes are sustained over the long term.

Meanwhile the program's benefits go beyond improvements in community health and nutrition. Participation in the group enhances individual students' leadership and public speaking skills, and also adds value as an extracurricular activity on college applications. Above all, says, Rocchio, "Students learn that they have a voice and the power to make change."

For more information:

Angela Rocchio, Community Organizer and Program Coordinator, Go for Health!, United Way of Santa Cruz, (831) 465-2210,