Healthy South Texas Tackles Rio Grande Valley Food Deserts

Vegetables

By Dominic Hernandez, Texas A&M University Health Science Center

A food desert is a place in a rural area where a person must travel 10 or more miles to access fresh fruit and vegetables, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In an urban area, a food desert is where an individual has to travel more than one mile to access these types of healthy food.

More than half of the Rio Grande Valley can be described as a food desert, but the federally funded Working on Wellness (WOW) Hidalgo program, which works from the Texas A&M University Health Science Center’s McAllen campus, is advancing initiatives to help.

“In some communities, people will travel 10 miles or further, and they may not have a grocery store so their options may be limited,” said Evelia Castillo, MPH, CHWI, program coordinator of the WOW Program.

Many of these residents live in “colonias,” a term that means “neighborhood” in Spanish, but has come to refer to small communities in rural areas beyond the municipal boundaries of the nearest cities and towns.

As part of Texas A&M’s Healthy South Texas—an innovative public health extension platform that combines the clinical expertise of the Health Science Center with the AgriLife Extension Service’s statewide reach—WOW-Hidalgo and other initiatives have been empowering the community to implement innovative solutions.

For example, they are working with local community clinics to stock local produce that the providers can prescribe bi-monthly to high-risk patients as they would a medication. These produce-filled clinics, called, appropriately enough, Farmmacies, are one-stop shops for ‘prescription’ fruits and vegetables.

There is also a fresh bag subscription system, where for a set price, customers can get produce delivered to their workplace either weekly or bi-weekly. This farm-to-workplace system helps alleviate the mileage barrier that separates people from fresh fruits and vegetables and also supports local farms.

“Working through community coalitions has allowed this project to develop and become a success,” Castillo said. “We have had so many community partners—like the Hope Family Health Center in McAllen, McAllen Elks Lodge and the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley—and having them involved makes it more comprehensive and sustainable and helps advance these initiatives.”

The next step for the WOW Project is to build and strengthen community involvement and take a political approach, and this involves establishing a food policy council to develop and implement policy to address food deserts.

“We are looking at making local advances to help make this a renewable grant through community partnerships,” Castillo said. “We are also working on getting the structure to create a policy council and allow the council to have a direct line to appointed and elected officials and inform the decision makers that policy, such as land use agreements and community gardens, has implications on food accessibility.”

For more information about the WOW Project, visit http://wow.tamu.edu/.

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This story by Dominic Hernandez originally appeared in Vital Record.


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