A food desert is a geographic area where affordable and healthy food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. Food deserts also exist in rural areas and low-income communities. Some research links them to diet-related health problems in affected populations. Food deserts are sometimes associated with supermarket shortages and food security.
Like many counties in Texas, Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties have high numbers of food deserts. Residents of low income households living in food deserts have limited ability to access and purchase healthy foods. On the other hand, foods that are nutrient poor but high in calories are often plentiful.
Researchers suggest that an individual’s food choices are often influenced by what is immediately available to them. Therefore, improving access to vegetables and fruits can be beneficial in improving their diet and the health of the community.
The Growing and Nourishing Healthy Communities program aims to increase the availability of healthy foods, specifically fresh produce, through the use of community gardens. Funded by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Growing and Nourishing Healthy Communities program teaches participants how to grow their own produce. To participate in the program, individuals must (1) qualify for SNAP benefits; (2) have an interest in learning how to grow vegetables; (3) agree to help build and maintain the community gardens; and (4) complete a series of educational classes to increase their gardening skills.
In 2014, a total of 212 families enrolled in the program, constructed 18 community gardens, and grew more than 2,900 pounds of vegetables with support from Extension educators and Master Gardeners. Locations of the gardens varied but were in areas accessible to the participants. Extension educators taught the gardening class series, which included topics such as how to select the right garden location, planting and watering techniques, controlling insects, and composting. As produce was harvested, participants learned how to prepare it by participating in the Better Living for Texans program. Pre and post-surveys indicate participants had an increase in gardening knowledge, as well as an increase in the availability of vegetables and fruits in the home.
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