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Poder Popular, a community advocacy group under Vista Community Clinic’s Migrant Health Program, believes that zip codes should not determine life expectancies. Yet the reality throughout low-income communities in the United States is that those arbitrary five digits often predict premature death from causes that are almost entirely preventable.
Economic disparities go hand and hand with a host of stress factors, including food insecurity and lack of access to healthcare. This creates a perfect storm of conditions that send communities into a downward spiral. The solution to correct this begins with community-led policy and advocacy.
A popular education organization of mixed-status, multigenerational families, Poder Popular has been championing the causes of inequity in District 1 within the City of Vista for more than 10 years.
The group focuses on the largely immigrant and Spanish-speaking community where most of their advocates live and work as a model to residents that lideres, or leaders, are not someone else from somewhere else. Lideres look like you or your neighbor or your grandson.
“We are from and for the community, we live in these neighborhoods, we know what is needed for us to live a healthier and safer life and we advocate for it because we want our children to live a better life,” explained Paola Illescas, former Community Health Specialist at Vista Community Clinic.
That’s why Poder Popular, which means Popular Power, focuses on community-level changes that a bigger organization could overlook. The group is involved in a number of programs that promote healthier food environments because given the opportunity more people are likely to make healthy eating choices on their own. No lectures required.
The Live Well Community Market Program helped change access to fresh, affordable, local produce by encouraging and advising local, small markets to create support systems for business growth, community cohesion, and better nutrition options.
“Many of the markets, or mercaditos, are an essential component of our neighborhood’s food environment and we try to help them promote healthier foods and less alcohol and tobacco,” Illescas said.
For example, one of their achievements was with La Salsa, a local market. Poder Popular lideres advised the owner on presentation. As a result, the market cleaned up the display area of their fruits and vegetables so that they could present the produce in a fresh, appealing way for customers. If stores are designed so that the least nutritious items are the most attractive, is it any wonder why people make the choices that they do?
To that end, Poder Popular also works to establish community gardens as a way to alleviate the inaccessibility to organic and fresh produce. This requires not just volunteers, but policy changes. Poder Popular has had to address the issue of land availability and water affordability as they work to train youth lideres to lobby for extensive improvements to neighborhoods by collaborating with the City of Vista and other stakeholders to improve infrastructure (including land use, sidewalks, lighting, road safety, etc.).
“Many factors impact our health and it is our duty to reduce disparities via different types of efforts,” Illescas said. “We have done projects focused on one-on-one health education to policy advocacy in Sacramento.”
She said that ultimately, they do this work for the health of everyone because by shining attention on the problems of one community, the solutions can uplift others.