Fruits, Veggies Sprout in Health Centers, Houston’s Food Deserts

Following a doctor’s visit at Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in southeast Houston, a mother and her daughter make two stops within the health center. One at the facility’s pharmacy to fill a prescription for diabetes medicine; the other at the center’s farmers market just steps away.

They decide what to buy for the week among the affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables. With only $5, they select broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, melons, apples and red ripe-vine tomatoes from a wide variety of farm-fresh produce.
Healthy Harvest, a collaboration of the Harris County Hospital District, a large network of primary care centers, specialty care clinics and hospitals, and Veggie Pals, Inc. offers dollar-store prices for nutrient-rich foods. Many patients of the hospital district live in food deserts, areas of the community with few or no grocery stores. The areas may better be described as food swamps, few grocery stores, but plenty of fast-food chains dishing out hamburgers, tacos, fries, and small corner stores selling high-calorie, high-fat foods and gallon cups of sugary soda.

Dr. Ann Smith Barnes, medical director, Weight Management Services and Disease Prevention, Harris County Hospital District, and assistant professor, Medicine Department, Baylor College of Medicine, was very aware of the economic challenges facing her patients and the lack of community support. 

“Three of the leading reasons why people don’t eat healthy foods in poor communities is a lack of access to fresh produce, the high cost of fruits and vegetables relative to nutrient poor foods and limited understanding about the health benefits of eating healthy foods,” she says. “The moment that I’m saying to patients, ‘You should improve your diet and eat healthy foods,’ I can point them down the hall to our farmers market to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Barnes worked with Renae Gray of Veggie Pals, Inc. to install farmers markets in the hospital district health centers. Since its start in November, Healthy Harvest has sold more than five tons of produce.

“As a clinician, I see more and younger patients with chronic diseases and conditions like diabetes and obesity that can be better managed or prevented altogether if people would simply eat more fresh fruits and vegetables,” Barnes says. “However, it’s hard for people to buy healthy food if they don’t have options. The research shows that neighborhoods without a supermarket suffer disproportionately high rates of obesity, heart disease and other health problems, while people who live in grocery store-rich areas tend to be healthier.”

HCHD now has farmers markets operating once a week in 10 of its community health centers.

The effects of obesity and its growing trend are already seen in healthcare. Obesity Reviews estimates the problem costs healthcare providers an additional $266 to treat an overweight person and $1,723 to treat an obese person.

At the Harris County Hospital District alone, it’s estimated that the cost to provide medical care for overweight patients is 40 percent more and 80 percent more in prescriptions. Annually, that translates to about $109 million.

By mid-afternoon, the Healthy Harvest famers market at MLK Health Center is almost sold out of fruits and vegetables, but more kitchens in the neighborhood are stocked with healthy produce.

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