Blanca Melendrez: Advocating for Healthier Communities

March 9, 2017

By Mario A. Cortez

Blanca Melendrez

In low income communities, health problems are abundant, mostly due to a lack of access to healthy food, as well a lack of medical and preventive services.

But for more than 17 years, Blanca Melendrez, who serves as Executive Director for the Center for Community Health at the University of California , San Diego (UCSD), has been at the forefront of the struggle to improve the health of our city’s residents, particularly those in low income areas.

“This is an issue of having access to live a healthy life with our families and in that sense, all our work is aimed at equity and social justice”, Melendrez said about her work.

Melendrez was born in Zacatecas, Mexico and came to Chula Vista when she was 16 years old. Melendrez told La Prensa San Diego that moving from a rural area to a city in California was a radical lifestyle change.

“It was a culture shock and it was also difficult because I arrived at a school where I had to take english as a second language courses. Therefore,was very difficult to get into a four-year university,” recalled Melendrez. “When I graduated from high school my parents expected me to go to an university because it was the most logical thing for them, but I had not become fluent in English.”
After graduating from Castle Park High School, Melendrez enrolled in a community college with the goal of improving her English language skills and transferring to a four-year institution.

“In my college I was in a program assisting Latinos aiming to go to an university and I also had very good grades, but my English was not too good yet,” Melendrez explained. “Eventually I was accepted at UCSD where I double majored in political science and in literature.”
“I always had the support of my family and the support of UCSD’s Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies, where I found great mentors and resources.”

After graduating, Melendrez continued at UCSD to pursue a master’s degree in literature. She also began to work on advocacy projects and public health in minority communities during this time.

“One of my first jobs in public health was a campaign called Latino 5 A Day, which took public health issues, with a focus on politics, aimed at leaders in communities to address the problem of obesity,” Melendrez said.

Since then, Melendrez has served as a key member of the UCSD Center for Community Health, eventually reaching her current position of Executive Director. The main issue Melendrez faces through education, policy, and advocacy is obesity and chronic diseases resulting from this condition, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

A main course of action Melendrez has taken to curb this disease includes looking for ways to increase access to fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetable in minority and low income communities.

An project which Melendrez, along with a great team of collaborators, were able to establish a farmer’s market in City Heights, one of San Diego’s most underserved communities.

“There was no farmer’s market in a low income community because they said it would not work and that the community would not shop there” Melendrez said. “Critics said that only the upper-middle class communities shopped at farmer’s markets, when in fact in many of our cultures it is customary to buy food outdoors”.

Today, the City Heights Farmer’s Market springs up every Saturday until 2 p.m. and has received national recognition as one of the markets with the highest food stamp redemption rates across the country.

A program which Melendrez has helped develop more recently is More Fresh!, which in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture and Northgate Gonzalez Markets, seeks to reward families while they shop for groceries.

More Fresh! is a program that awards a dollar-for-dollar match to beneficiaries of assistance programs, such as CalFresh, as a reward for buying fresh produce. Through this program the effect that financial incentives have on government assistance recipients will be evaluated to further help people engage in healthier eating.

Melendrez’s work does end there. Along with a team of over 30 employees, more than 200 interns and volunteers, and members of the community, she will continue to propose solutions and to address health problems in order to improve the lives of thousands of local residents.

“Through many resources and ways of taking action, we can act in to benefit the health of our community” Melendrez closed. “I love my job”.

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