By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
LAS ANIMAS — History hangs over this town with both heaviness and hope.
Legend has it that the town and the nearby Purgatoire River got their names from some ill-fated Spanish explorers who became “lost souls” when they died without a priest’s blessing.
That sense of loss still pervades this area. Tornados and drought wreak havoc here. Poverty is among the worst in Colorado — with 80 percent of children in the Las Animas schools qualifying for free and reduced-priced school lunches. Obesity rates are now among the highest in the state. The Fort Lyon prison, which used to be the biggest employer in Bent County, shut its doors in February. While the Great Recession is easing elsewhere, unemployment here is both fresh and familiar.
Despite so much bad news, town leaders are determined to beat the “lost souls” rap. Cheery red banners line the streets of the downtown proclaiming Las Animas as the “City of Spirit.” The downtown courthouse stands tall and proud, a red brick beauty rising from the plains.
And when it comes to the most stubborn health epidemic now facing the U.S., Las Animas wants to succeed at a tough goal — becoming the little town that beats the highest obesity rates in Colorado
Health is a key component of the area’s new comprehensive plan. And the irrepressible head of LiveWell Bent County, Tammy Westerman-Pryor, is attacking obesity on three key fronts: creating safe paths for walking and bike riding, increasing access to healthy foods and empowering young people through school wellness initiatives.
“I want this to be the healthiest community possible — one little change at a time, one little step,” says Westerman-Pryor. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but we’re making changes.”
Change takes time
Hope for a healthier community rests in the young people here.
In fact, the seeds of change are literally growing inside a new greenhouse steps from the middle school classrooms at the Las Animas Secondary School, the town’s combined middle and high school.
Michael Burbank, 13, is a seventh-grader here. He’s a member of the school’s Youth Task Force and is participating in a new elective: the greenhouse class. A local food bank donated the structure for the greenhouse to the town a couple of years ago, but there was never any money in the budget to actually build it or run it.
When closure of the prison appeared imminent, Westerman-Pryor decided to ask the Department of Corrections for help. She asked a work crew to erect the greenhouse as a positive and healthy legacy for the town. The crew came and installed heat in the floors so the greenhouse could become a year-round classroom. It opened in time for the school year and now boasts a variety of plants from sunflowers to herbs.
On this April day, Burbank is tending both flowers and vegetables, watering them and carrying them outside for a plant sale. The students have grown some of the plants from seed.
“I like this kind of stuff. It gives me something to do. It’s fun. You get to be outside and help out a lot of people,” says Burbank.
Freckle-faced, grinning and flushed from the work, he wears a community garden volunteer T-shirt with a message that symbolizes the mission here in Las Animas: “Growth takes time,” the back of the shirt says. “Be patient…and while you are waiting, pull a weed.”
“My favorite place to be is in the greenhouse,” Burbank says. “It’s kind of cool and moist in there. I’m proud of the tomatoes because they’ve shown progress over the months.”
Fighting unhealthy habits
It’s a big day here. In the morning, students have organized the 78th annual parade and festival called Santa Fe Trail Days that commemorates this area’s location along the key trade route from Missouri to Santa Fe. It’s billed as the longest-running student council-sponsored event in the U.S.
The forecast this year was ominous. Rare midnight tornados whipped through the area the night before the parade doing damage in nearby towns. By morning, the wind had calmed down, but rain threatened to mar the festivities. Then, just before the floats left the high school, the sun peeked out and horses and marchers managed to leap over puddles that were left behind.
Burbank and other students created a greenhouse float and marched in the parade advertising fruits and vegetables and their plant sale. Westerman-Pryor donned chili pepper sunglasses for the occasion while 17-year-old junior Lucas Frausto dressed up as a bunch of grapes and hollered, “I say green. You say house.”
The students, who have created surveys about healthy eating and have found that very few residents here are eating enough fruits and vegetables, hand out health information as ambassadors for their nascent movement.
The deck is stacked against healthy eating. Stroll downtown after the parade to the Santa Fe Trail Days street festival and you’ll see the challenge in stark terms. LiveWell Colorado’s Get Movin’ mobile van has come to town so workers can share tips on exercise and nutrition.
Shiny pink hula-hoops draw curious children. Naturally active, young girls take turns wiggling in the street as hoops spin around their hips. Waiting for a turn, one child holds a giant 32-ounce soft drink while a mother, who is herself struggling with obesity, snacks on a funnel cake and quiets a baby with a handful of neon orange Cheetos.
In addition to working as the county’s LiveWell coordinator, Westerman-Pryor also drives a school bus and regularly ferries students to athletic events. She said coaches routinely insist on stopping at fast food joints after games. Students stock up on food from the dollar menu and fill up on sodas. Fast food restaurants lure the coaches by giving them free meals, then make money on the kids.
Soda is now banned in school and there’s a salad bar full of fresh options. But parents often send candy for after-school snacks and some parents and children balk at the idea of walking or riding bikes to school, even if they only have to travel six blocks.
Poverty and obesity linked
Westerman-Pryor said the only way to make changes is to embed them in the culture and policies of the town. Obesity rates are climbing so fast that the problem is urgent.
The most recent data from the Colorado Health Report Card released this spring by the Colorado Health Foundation has found that adult obesity rates in Bent and surrounding counties on Colorado’s eastern plains are the highest in the state with about 28 percent of adults now obese. That’s up from about 23 percent in 2003-04 and does not include adults who are overweight.
Obesity is also growing at an alarming rate among children in Colorado. About 19 percent of children in the Las Animas area are obese while another 12 percent are overweight, meaning that one-third of kids now weigh too much and could face severe, costly health challenges for the rest of their lives.
Experts say there’s a clear link between poverty and health problems, including obesity.
In Colorado, the number of children living in poverty has more than doubled since 2,000. In 2010, about 210,000 children — or about 17 percent — were living in families earning at or below the poverty level, according to the latest KidsCount report from the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
As poverty rates in Colorado have shot up, so has childhood obesity. While Colorado had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003, the state now ranks 23rd in the nation for child obesity and Hispanic children are three times more likely than white children to be obese, according to the Colorado Health Report Card.
“There are documented differences in health between individuals of different income levels, different races and from different communities,” said Gretchen Hammer, executive director for the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved. “These differences are created by a number of different factors including…safe places to play for children, safe workplaces and workplaces that support healthy living, access to affordable, nutritious food and adequate time, resources and cultural norms to lead people to engage in healthy living activities.”
Hammer, who is also chair of Colorado’s new Health Benefit Exchange, which is creating an online market for health insurance, says access to health insurance and health care services is vital. But, she said there’s a growing recognition that “the more we think about health as something that begins outside the doctor’s door or health clinic, the more opportunities we have to improve it.”
Borrowing from anti-smoking campaigns
Changing the culture is exactly what Westerman-Pryor and LiveWell are trying to do in Las Animas.
The list of projects is dizzying and inspiring. The Youth Task Force is working on a project to connect trails at the town baseball fields with an in-town trail and a 1.5 mile loop at the adjacent golf course. Some of the streets in town have sidewalks that are falling apart while others have none at all. As part of their “active transportation” and Safe Schools initiatives, Westerman-Pryor and the kids are trying to map out good routes for both adults and children.
Among their dreams is a grand plan for a street called Grand. The street is especially wide and the kids figure that town leaders once upon a time must have envisioned something special. The kids wanted to create a median to attract safe foot traffic. But, they’re not certain that residents will buy in to major changes on Grand.
At the ballparks, seventh-graders want to build a butterfly garden. Several young people will get gardening training this summer working at both the greenhouse and the nearby Community Garden. Meanwhile, after 10 years without any sort of farmers’ market, Las Animas residents enjoyed a fledgling market last August and a committee of volunteers is planning for a market to run longer this summer.
In tapping young people to change their communities, Las Animas is borrowing a strategy from experts who fought the last major health war against smoking.
Heather Kennedy was a youth activist and later a leader with the Get R!EAL anti-smoking campaign that succeeded in reducing smoking rates among children in Colorado. Kennedy has worked with the young people in Las Animas. First, the students campaigned in their town to make their parks and all future trails tobacco-free. Then, the student activists shifted their attention to health concerns. As with cigarette smoking, the kids have analyzed how food advertising influences purchases. They’ve done presentations for parents on sugary cereals and conducted a survey of the town residents on eating choices, eliciting responses from every student in grades 6 through 12.
“You give them the power to educate their own communities. They learn about issues. Then they chose to eat more healthfully because they are educating others,” Kennedy said.
“Kids who change their behavior will change their communities. And you get a community change that is accepted by the community,” she said.
Beth Myers, an 18-year-old senior lives about five miles out of Las Animas. She works on the youth task force and is excited about the trails project.
“If we want to go hiking, we have to drive four hours,” she said.
Myers plays volleyball, basketball and runs track, but for kids who aren’t involved in sports, there’s very little to do but hang out and play video games or entertain yourself on the computer.
“I think kids do care about obesity, but most of the people here don’t have the money. Money is a big issue. A lot of times, healthy food is more expensive than junk food,” Myers said.
She hopes the trails will attract both kids and adults.
“I think it will give people an opportunity to get out and experience nature. Without the mountains, people will have a place to go and exercise. People will get out more.”
Michael Burbank, one of the other youth task force members, says he knows plenty of kids who sit around the house and play video games. But other kids are joining in the garden movement and he says that kids like the idea that they can change their community. Even kids who griped about the greenhouse class have enjoyed getting outside their classrooms, watering the plants and watching them grow.
Eating produce you’ve grown gives you a new perspective too, Burbank says. The kids have sampled lettuce and red beets. His favorite was some carrots he pulled straight from the Community Garden last year.
“They were pretty good,” Burbank says. “You could taste some dirt, but that just means they’re fresh.”