Energized Youth Work to Add Healthier Dining Choices in Watsonville, Calif.

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“It’s hard to engage the average youth in something where there is no choice.”

That’s what Kymberly Lacrosse, a community organizer for the United Way of Santa Cruz County, Calif., said about the limited healthy food options in Watsonville. A multitude of unhealthy snacks, greasy fast food, and sugary drink options leave little room for other, healthier choices.

Lacrosse mentors the youth involved in Jóvenes SANOS, a youth advocacy and leadership group working to prevent and raise awareness about childhood obesity in Watsonville

With almost half of children in the city overweight or obese, the youth of Jóvenes SANOS knew they had to help their small city get healthier. They eventually pushed for improved neighborhood food/dining options.

Obesity in Santa Cruz County

In California’s Santa Cruz County, located on the central pacific coast, the city of Watsonville faces disproportionately higher rates of obesity compared to Santa Cruz, the other major city in the county. A farming community that is 80% Latino, Watsonville has also struggled economically to keep the city moving forward, with the recent unemployment rate almost hitting 30%. Youth in Watsonville who want to make a difference in their community are encouraged to join Jóvenes SANOS, a youth advocacy project seeking to increase opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity for young people of Watsonville through implementing long-term environmental policy and system change. In 2010, the youth of Jóvenes SANOS began to learn about the widespread obesity crisis facing their city. They learned about the future health implications if youth didn’t begin to make healthier lifestyle changes.

“Since we are a large community of Latinos, which are the ones most affected,” said Carina Ramirez, a youth involved in Jóvenes SANOS, “I think we should address this problem.”

The youth began to brainstorm ways to tackle this issue. The nutritionally poor neighborhood food environment quickly became a focal point. Fast food restaurants are everywhere in Watsonville, offering mostly high fat and high sugar foods. Healthier fare is not as common.

Students at Watsonville High School are allowed to go off campus for lunch, and the closest options are fast food, says Ivan Hernandez, a youth of Jóvenes SANOS.

One way to reduce obesity in young people, the students reasoned, was to ban fast food restaurants near schools and parks.

Ban on Fast Food?

For such ban to get approved, the youth knew they would need the support of restaurant owners as well as the City Council.

The youth formed a task force made up of restaurant owners, county personnel, community members, and city council members. The task force would meet and discuss the obesity problem facing Watsonville and the logistics of a fast food ban. During this time, the youth went out and mapped all the fast food places in Watsonville that were close to schools or playgrounds.

“The students surveyed over 100 individual residents, children as well as adults, and visited all 21 food outlets within a one-mile radius of the high school downtown,” said Laura Young, director of community organizing for United Way of Santa Cruz County.

The students asked questions about the current healthy options available at each restaurant. These one-on-one interactions helped build relationships, which are vital in growing changes in a community, Lacrosse said. The youth wrote op-eds in the local paper about the need to reduce and prevent childhood obesity to stimulate community involvement. They also researched other cities’ efforts to curb the expansion of fast food restaurants, like an ordinance in neighboring Westwood that limits fast food restaurants to one every 400 feet.

Young said that some Watsonville restaurant owners were happy to work with the youth, but they “did not get a warm welcome at all of the restaurants.”

A ban that would potentially hurt businesses in an already hard economy didn’t sit well with some legislators or restaurant owners. Once they realized this, the youth began to rethink the ban.

“They pride themselves on caring about the community and wanting what’s best for the community” Lacrosse said of the youth.

So after more debate and discussion within the taskforce, the youth agreed to go forward with a different ordinance that would establish healthy food regulations for restaurants in Watsonville. This was an idea that the entire task force could support: additional healthier choices for the community.

“[The youth] feel like it is so important to have a choice, but then to be able to make the healthy choice,” Lacrosse said. She points to this shift from advocating for full-out bans to advocating for choices as a turning point for Jóvenes SANOS. “What started as a moratorium has actually kind of evolved not just the work that we do but us and our mission.”

Moving Past a Ban; Toward Healthier Options

To craft this healthy food ordinance, the youth continued to meet with the task force, deciding what sorts of guidelines were reasonable and what would be too difficult. They did more one-on-ones with council members to continue those important relationships.


During discussions, the task force decided that the new guidelines would only apply to restaurants that would open after the ordinance goes into effect. Of course, existing restaurants would be encouraged to participate, with incentives like media coverage and city recognition.

On October 26, 2010, armed with facts and personal stories, the youth shared the local impact of obesity with the Watsonville City Council and explained how a policy promoting higher-nutrition food choices was sorely needed.

“The one group that is always going to get my attention is a group of young people who have studied the issue,” said Council member Manuel Quintero Bersamin at the meeting.

The City Council voted 5-1 to approve a new ordinance. Under the new rules, existing food outlets are encouraged to expand their healthy menu offerings and provide nutrition and calorie information on all items. For this, the restaurant will receive a certificate and free advertisement on the City of Watsonville’s cable television station. For all new restaurants, the guidelines will be mandatory; to obtain a city building permit, new restaurants must provide healthy options. These options can include offering at least four choices of fruits or vegetables prepared in a low-fat way, at least one fat-free or low-fat salad dressing, at least one low-fat vegetarian dish, whole grain bread instead of white bread, corn instead of flour tortillas, or whole beans instead of refried beans.

“How great would it be to have more options than just tacos, burritos, or pizza….just having something else that would be healthier?” said Hernandez at the council meeting.

Making Sure the Efforts Last a Long Time

Once the ordinance passed, the real work began.

Youth were excited that the City Council enacted a change to encourage healthier eating in Watsonville, but they also were concerned that the policy wasn’t changing anything, that it was being forgotten. It was the city’s job to implement the healthy restaurant ordinance, but because of more budget cuts, the youth worried the ordinance was slipping through the cracks. They didn’t want their hard work go to waste.

To ensure that the ordinance makes an impact, the youth are going to survey every restaurant in the city in fall 2013 to understand how effective the ordinance has been, if at all. How were new restaurants being made aware of the ordinance? Were owners getting the support they needed to implement the policy in the best way?

Jóvenes SANOS also hopes to craft a tool kit for store owners to use that will help them follow the ordinance while making it fit their unique needs.

The journey is not over for Jóvenes SANOS. They have already been hard at work on other healthy policies for Watsonville, like a METRO ordinance that brings healthier options to the county’s public transportation stations. They learned a lot from the healthy restaurant ordinance, lessons about the importance of giving people choices and partnering with the entire community.

“The new way of being [is] partnerships,” Lacrosse said.

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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