By Margaret T. Simpson
Veronica Meza, recreation specialist for the El Monte Parks and Recreation Department, leads members of the Arceo Walking Club on their morning walk through a rectangular route of familiar city streets. Meza begins each walk with warm-up exercises and ends with a series of cool-down movements. The walkers, most of them middle-aged adults, some with young children, are enthusiastic about this new wellness activity in their city.
“They really like coming out and being a part of it,” said Meza. “Having a leader motivates them.”
The 1.1 mile walking route, named for its anchor location in Arceo Park, opened in October 2009 as the first project in El Monte’s health and wellness initiative, known as Healthy El Monte. Community participation remains strong as the walking program nears its one-year anniversary.
“There are over 300 members of the Arceo Walking Club now,” said Alexander Chan, El Monte’s planning services manager. “We have a group of dedicated walkers.”
Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the Arceo Walk project has had a ripple effect in El Monte.
“We’ve gotten a large amount of interest from people who don’t live near the Arceo Walk neighborhood,” said Chan. “They want a walking route in their neighborhood.”
The wellness team is taking the walking club concept to other city parks, said Arpiné Shakhbandaryan, M.P.H., the city’s health and wellness coordinator. “We have been surveying and asking for feedback on where residents would like it to be located,” she said. The park connection is vital, she believes, because a walking path is designed to maximize the value of open space, and it links recreation with an enjoyable social activity.
A grant from the Center for Civic Partnership (through its California Healthy Cities and Communities Program) funded the purchase of t-shirts, pedometers and promotional materials for the Arceo Walking Club as well as salaries for designated recreation leaders like Veronica Meza. The grant has also subsidized bus trips to Griffith Park and the Rose Bowl to show residents examples of other, larger parks in the area. The CCP has designated El Monte a California Healthy City for its health and wellness initiative.
“The walking path was fairly low-cost,” said Chan. The $25,000 project included the route design, unique signage on the walk path, landscaping and minor site improvements. “With a really small investment in terms of finance and resources, we were able to create a highly-utilized amenity,” he said.
Healthy El Monte, funded in 2007 by a three-year PLACE grant (Policies for Livable, Active Communities and Environments) from the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, is part of the city’s long-range goal to improve the health of its residents.
In El Monte, a San Gabriel Valley city with multiple health and environmental challenges, high rates of obesity and diabetes coexist with high poverty levels. Two major freeways (Interstates 10 and 605) intersect and funnel heavy traffic through city streets. Almost 70 percent of the city is hardscape, an impenetrable network of concrete and asphalt surface that discourages recreational walking. The city is heavily industrialized with the Alameda rail corridor line, a Superfund site and the San Gabriel Valley’s major bus terminal.
“Our city is a built-out city. We’re very park poor, we’re on the low side of parks per resident,” said Chan. “We’re severely impacted by deficiencies in infrastructure on both a city level and a regional level.”
Thirty percent of El Monte’s residents don’t own cars, and many shop for groceries at corner liquor stores or convenience markets — what Chan calls “mom and pop” stores — that stock more alcoholic beverages and candy than nutritious food.
“In a city of approximately 125,000 residents, we don’t have a brand-name supermarket located within the city,” he said.
El Monte’s wellness initiative incorporates a new public health awareness of the relationship between environment and health, said Shakhbandaryan. In the past, wellness policies were based on changing a person’s behavior or motivation and on the assumption that healthy choices are easy choices.
“But how can an individual change their behavior if their environment is counter-productive, if there is no place for them to get recreational activity or shop for healthy food?” she said.
Now that the Arceo Walking Club is established, Shakhbandaryan and Chan will focus their energies on what Chan describes as the “less tangible,” but no less important, aspects of community wellness. Their first priority is the design of healthy-food strategies for local convenience stores.
If the Healthy El Monte program offers marketing incentives on a larger scale, said Shakhbandaryan, it may persuade more local convenience stores to upgrade their food inventories.
“Given the trend in obesity prevention, that’s a highly favored status,” she said. “We see that as a potential marketing strategy. You change one store and market them appropriately; you hope others will follow. If you just educate the owners about how their products affect people’s health, they become motivated themselves.”
Chan and other city officials continue to finalize the draft of the Wellness Initiative element for inclusion in the General Plan later this year. Chan is confident about public support for this policy upgrade based upon favorable input from residents in earlier public hearings.
“Even on some of the more far-reaching policies that we’re looking to adopt that we’ve funneled through our stakeholder groups, the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “There really hasn’t been to date anyone who’s given negative feedback.”
From Chan’s experience with city government and politics, that’s unheard of. It’s a harbinger of good things in the future for Healthy El Monte.