As CEO of the nonprofit IT’S TIME TEXAS, I often speak to groups across Texas about the health crisis our state faces and what must be done before time runs out. I share the bad news that nearly 70% of all Texas adults are overweight or obese, that half of all African American and Hispanic children born in the U.S. in the year 2000 are projected to develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. In addition, obesity is projected to cost Texas businesses nearly $35 billion by the year 2030 if current trends continue.
I also share the good news — that we have the power to change all of this by working together to build and sustain healthier communities. Whether I am presenting to a chamber of commerce, civic organization, school district, or a gathering of local leaders, they always ask me the same question: What community in Texas is leading the way and should serve as our model? My answer always shocks them: San Antonio.
I think my audiences are surprised by my answer because IT’S TIME TEXAS is based in Austin, a city broadly perceived to be “fit” and healthy, and because San Antonio so often ends up on the dreaded “fattest cities in America” lists. While those lists are often far from scientific, San Antonio has been deserving of its inclusion on them.
According to the most current data, 71% of all adults in Bexar County are overweight or obese, and more than 14% of Bexar County residents have been diagnosed with diabetes — rates that are higher than both state and national averages.
These stats, while alarming and important, do not tell the impressive and instructional story that San Antonio has been writing through its focused, collective work to become a thriving, 21st century city. Nor do these data explain why, for four straight years, San Antonio has won the IT’S TIME TEXAS Community Challenge — the state’s largest healthy communities competition — or why we decided to host our annual Summit in this great city this year, which will take place August 1-2 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
To understand why we at IT’S TIME TEXAS believe San Antonio is so special, you have to understand the key characteristics of a healthy community, characteristics that San Antonians are purposefully and admirably weaving into their communal and cultural DNA.
For starters, healthy communities have committed leadership. They have leaders across sectors who recognize the critical and foundational role that health plays in the success of their people and invest in it. San Antonio has been fortunate to have two such leaders — Mayors Julian Castro and Ivy Taylor.
Former mayor Castro deserves much praise for helping to set San Antonio on its current health journey, and Mayor Taylor is creating her own impressive legacy through her strong support of San Antonio’s Mayor’s Fitness Council (MFC) and efforts like her Walk with the Mayor program.
Healthy communities have a unifying vision and support community action plans. The SA2020 plan and its nonprofit parent were created through a two-year process that began in 2010. This comprehensive plan not only includes health as a core issue area, but it also wisely addresses what we in the public health field refer to as the “social determinants of health,” issues like education, housing, transportation, and neighborhood safety that significantly affect a population’s ability to engage in and access healthy lifestyles.
The SA2020 plan also has served as a guiding framework for the Mayor’s Fitness Council’s strategic plans and the Bexar County community health improvement plan, which was developed by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and the Bexar County Health Collaborative.
Healthy communities succeed through collaboration. The San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council is a nationally recognized best practice example of a highly impactful community health collaborative. Under the direction of its current chair, Jeff Skelton, the Fitness Council is equal parts champion, and catalyst for the community-wide efforts to improve health.
The Council also serves as a hub for other, related health collaboratives, including the San Antonio Business Group on Health and School Health Advisory Councils. The Bexar County Health Collaborative is another important organization that helps to align and advance the efforts of San Antonio’s public and population health sectors.
Healthy communities have aligned efforts across sectors. While there are too many notable examples to include here, some of our favorites include:
- The San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council and its Student Ambassador program
- The YMCA’s Síclovía community event
- San Antonio Metro Health District’s ¡Por Vida! healthy dining program and Health and the Built Environment conference
- H-E-B’s innovative Slim Down Showdown
- The San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department’s Fitness in the Park program
- The Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio’s Salud America! social marketing initiative
- San Antonio Food Bank’s BackPack and Kids Café programs
- San Antonio Sports’ wildly successful University Health System Go!Kids Challenge
- The Veg Out! SA nutritional campaign, which was a collaboration of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, H-E-B, the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio Foundation, and the Mayor’s Fitness Council
- The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio’s Culinary Health Education for Families program
And, finally, healthy communities know their numbers, understand the needs of their people, and evaluate their efforts. These communities use data and ongoing collaboration with community members, especially those most in need, to guide their work, and they have measures in place to determine effectiveness and what changes need to be made to increase their impact. San Antonio’s stellar health department, the San Antonio Metro Health District, SA2020, the Bexar County Health Collaborative, and the San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council all uniquely contribute to this vital work.
The above list is in no way exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. Rather, this partial list is meant to provide a bit more insight into A) why we at IT’S TIME TEXAS are so in awe of our friends and partners in San Antonio and B) how other Texas communities can and should follow San Antonio’s lead.
San Antonio’s health journey is still new and the challenges are many. But it is San Antonio’s collaborative, entrepreneurial approach and community-wide commitment to this most critical of issues that, in our opinion, makes it the brightest spot in Texas.
I hope that you can join us on August 1-2 at this year’s IT’S TIME TEXAS Summit, as we unite for a healthier Texas and celebrate your incredible city. IT’S TIME.
The nonprofit IT’S TIME TEXAS is championing the fight for a healthier Texas. IT’S TIME TEXAS empowers Texans to lead healthier lives and build healthier communities through its portfolio of award-winning technology, programs, events, initiatives, training, and support services. Join the cause for a healthier Texas at www.itstimetexas.org.
Correction: This article previously stated that “70% of all Texans are overweight or obese.” In fact, 70% of all Texas adults are overweight or obese.
Top image: Participants at the 2016 Healthy Texas Week Rally do yoga. Photo courtesy of IT’S TIME TEXAS.