Establishing community gardens and farmers markets in underserved, inner-city neighborhoods has earned the Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS) a model practice award from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
HDHHS is one of only 39 health departments nationwide honored by the association for setting up exemplary programs that other cities can replicate or adapt to address a public health need.
“Our efforts received recognition as innovative since farmers markets in communities considered food desserts or disadvantaged are extremely rare across the country and typically located in more upscale neighborhoods that don’t have problems accessing fresh produce,” said Patsy Cano, a senior staff analyst who oversaw the development of HDHHS’ community gardens and farmers markets program. “We are also one of the largest operators of community gardens in Harris County."
HDHHS kicked off its farmers markets initiative in March of last year in the neighborhoods of Sunnyside, Magnolia and Fifth Ward. The initiative aims to provide easier access to affordable fruits and vegetables in Houston communities considered food deserts because they are underserved by grocery stores and other fresh food outlets.
The markets are on the first Thursday of the month at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, 4605 Wilmington; the second Tuesday of the month at the Lyons Avenue Health Center, 5602 Lyons; and the fourth Friday of the month at the Magnolia Multi-Service Center, 7037 Capitol. All markets are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Three years ago HDHHS set up community gardens at nine of its 11 multi-service centers to help residents incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into their diet.
HDHHS provides all materials and supplies needed to grow seasonal gardens. Residents plant, fertilize, mulch, weed and rake the garden beds. At harvest time they divvy up a variety of vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, okra and zucchini and herbs including as mint, thyme, rosemary, cilantro and sage.
Fruits and vegetables help prevent or delay the start of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory and bone diseases. However, behavioral surveys indicate that 74 percent of Houston-area residents eat less than the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables can also help people lose or maintain a healthy weight. In recent years, obesity and overweight rates have risen in Houston for both adults and children. Surveys show 67 percent of adults were overweight or obese in 2008, compared to 61 percent in 2002. Among youths, 34 percent of high school students were overweight or obese in 2007, compared to 29 percent in 1999.
The community gardens and farmers markets programs help address poor nutrition and physical inactivity, critical risk factors for chronic disease.