Dr. Joe Sharkey, has spent nearly a decade trying to improve the lives of children and families living along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, Sharkey plans to take his work to a new level with the help of a five-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Dr. Sharkey will lead a team from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona who plan to implement a family-centered approach to reducing the incidence of childhood obesity along the border through research, education and extension. Levels of childhood obesity in this area are reaching “epidemic proportions,” according to studies conducted by the United States-México Border Health Commission.
“The burden of obesity disproportionately affects marginalized populations, such as children of Mexican heritage who reside in impoverished communities along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Dr. Sharkey, who is professor of health promotion and community health sciences in the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and founding director of the Program for Research and Outreach-Engagement on Nutrition and Health Disparities.
The program will focus on areas with the least amount of resources, such as the more than 2,300 colonias scattered along the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to Brownsville. Colonias are unregulated neighborhoods that have sprung up in former agricultural areas that have exhausted their usefulness for growing crops. Families living in these areas have limited access to affordable, healthy foods and physical activity opportunities. Public health officials trying to improve the quality of life in these areas face numerous barriers such as language, level of education, poverty, inaccessibility, and trust of outsiders. The program will focus on Hidalgo County (Texas), Luna and Otero counties (New Mexico), and Santa Cruz County (Arizona).
“Obesity is a very complex issue in these areas,” Dr. Sharkey said. “It can be hard to be physically active when it is 100 degrees outside, there are dogs running loose and there are gangs. Parents may be keeping their kids inside the house because it is safer. You can’t just take a program from somewhere else and drop it in there.” As a result, the team will focus on addressing environmental context and culture of the areas.
Dr. Sharkey and other members of the research team plan to develop and test a promotora-driven model called Salud Para Usted y Su Familia (Health for You and Your Family). Promotoras are members of the community who are trusted by residents, serve as a cultural bridge, and have special training in outreach and health education. Sharkey said he was encouraged to start the program by promotoras themselves.