In Texas, counties are responsible for public health, and as the commissioner who represents the area in which the County Hospital District is located, health care is a priority for me. In El Paso, there are grave issues with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. One third of our population is uninsured and another third is on Medicaid, which means taxpayers pay for more than half of the medical costs incurred by treating people with these issues. Therefore, as policymakers, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to better health care outcomes and save taxpayers money in the process.
We need to start with the root causes of these illnesses, which all have something in common: one’s diet. After attending a number of conference sessions regarding health care and after meeting with local organizations like El Pasoans Fighting Hunger and the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living, it became evident to me that food insecurity, which is the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food, directly affects the diet of many people in this community.
Did you know 12 percent of El Pasoans suffer from food insecurity? It is even worse among children — a mind-blowing one third, or nearly 70,000. According to the Institute for Healthy Living and the Food Trust, the majority of El Paso County residents eat less than one serving of fruits and vegetables a day, and there are 27 too few supermarkets in the region, leaving 160,000 residents, including 52,000 children, with limited access to supermarkets. Access is inequitably distributed to existing supermarkets, and lower-income neighborhoods and colonias are categorically underserved.
So, how do we change this? There’s no simple answer, but there has to be a change in mentality when it comes to eating healthy. The nonprofit sector is already working on that. Organizations like the Kelly Memorial Food Pantry offer access to healthy food, but also teach people how to choose nutritious options and cook them. That said, the public sector must contribute more. Enter Healthy Food Financing Initiatives.
Healthy Food Financing Initiatives help fund the development, construction, improvement and rehabilitation of healthy food retail in low-income, underserved areas. The concept originated in Pennsylvania 15 years ago and has been successfully replicated across the nation. As of today, there are 250 HFFI projects funded in 35 states. And, now, I am proud to say that El Paso has become the first county in the nation to create its own HFFI.
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We are investing $500,000 to help change our community’s mentality and health care outcomes, as well as spur economic development by creating more jobs in the region, and we can leverage three to five times that amount. In Pennsylvania, the initial $30 million investment spurred $190 million in total, creating 5,000 jobs. We already have a one-to-one match commitment from a Community Development Financial Institute, PeopleFund. Now, $1 million is available for HFFI projects, and we expect that amount to grow as we search out other partnerships.
I thank the Institute for Healthy Living, the American Heart Association, the county administration, County Economic Development and PeopleFund for the hard work put into creating this policy, and I give special thanks to the El Paso County Commissioners Court for understanding the importance of this project and the multiple positive impacts it will have on our community. Now, it’s time to spread the word and start putting these funds to work!
David C. Stout is county commissioner for Precinct 2.
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