City Initiative Brings Fresh Produce to Houston's 'Food Deserts'




Imagine having to do your weekly grocery shopping at the neighborhood convenience store. You might find potato chips, frozen dinners, and if you’re lucky, a lone banana. For some in Houston, a convenience store may sometimes be the only option.

"If you look at the map of Sunnyside, there’s a huge portion that does not have even a small grocery store. And so if you have transportation issues, you don’t have a vehicle, you’re not on a bus route, it’s going to be difficult."

Porfirio Villarreal is with the Houston Health Department. He says Sunnyside, in south Houston, is considered a food desert because there a very few places for people to buy fresh, healthy food. He says that there are as many as 16 food deserts in Houston. I met Monica Marsh on a busy street in Sunnyside. She was on her way to the bus stop with her daughter.

Arga Bourgois selling vegetables with Sunshine Foods
Arga Bourgois (green t-shirt) selling produce
with Sunshine Foods

"As far as the fresh fruits and the vegetables and everything, they’re very hard to get to."

On the other, wealthier side of Houston in Montrose, there are four major grocery stores within a mile radius. But if you’re in Sunnyside or the Fifth Ward, you’re lucky if there’s one. Houston has one supermarket for every 1200 people. That’s 185 less than the national average. And that’s a big problem, says Miriam Manon. She’s a project manager at The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based non-profit.

"What we’re finding is that in these neighborhoods where there are few supermarkets there are many many convenience stores, corner stores, gas stations. And the parents are really relying on these stores to feed their family and there really are not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables."

"What was really striking is that many of the lower income areas with poor supermarkets are also the same places that have very high rates of diet related disease."

According to the Department of State Health Services, nearly two-thirds of Houstonians are either overweight or obese. Villarreal with the Houston Health Department says the epidemic is worsened by the fact that only a quarter of Houstonians eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The problem is compounded for people who have trouble even accessing fresh produce. But the Houston Health Department is hoping to change that. They've just kicked off an initiative to bring fresh fruits and vegetables via farmers markets to three low-income areas considered food deserts: Magnolia, the Fifth Ward, and Sunnyside.

teens selling starter plants
Teens selling starter plants with Pro Vision School, which runs a community garden.

Manon says the long-term health implications of not having access to affordable fresh fruits and veggies are particularly serious.

"Farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods is a new concept."

He says they typically pop up in more affluent areas. The markets will be held once a month in each neighborhood. Villarreal says the goal is to have affordable produce available and nutrition experts on hand to give tips on preparing healthy meals.

"We had people who were asking, ‘How do I prepare this kale that I just bought?’ And so they were given really good options of adding bell peppers and steaming it. So it was great to see people asking, 'How do I do this healthier?'"

But farmers markets alone won’t solve the problem, says The Food Trust’s Manon. She says what these areas really need are supermarkets.

For more on the city’s initiative, visit www.houstontx.gov/health/Community/farmersmarket.




Images were taken by Porfirio Villarreal of the Houston Health Department.
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