Food deserts in Houston become oasis for residents through AgriLife Extension programs

HOUSTON – Deserts around the world are known to be places devoid of vegetation and with little to no chance to produce any.

Deserts of another sort have been identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture throughout the nation — food deserts, or places where people don’t have access to grocery stores with affordable, healthy food choices.

Several food deserts have been found in Houston, but the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is matching their expertise in gardening and human health with residents in those areas in hopes of obliterating the food deserts.

“More than 440,000 residents live in Houston communities where instead of grocery stores there are an abundance of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores,” said Skip Richter, AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Harris County. “Plus, stores in these low-income areas stock fewer healthy foods, and public transportation to supermarkets is often lacking.”

Food insecurity and the resulting health-related issues are detrimental both to the individuals affected by the situation and to the state economy, AgriLife Extension officials said.

A team of AgriLife Extension agents are helping to solve the problem with a variety of free programs in the affected neighborhoods, according to Linda Williams-Willis, AgriLife Extension Harris County director.

“Our nutrition programs provide people with an understanding of how to make lifestyle changes,” Williams-Willis said. “They learn how to use more fruits and vegetables in their diet, and that will reduce or hopefully prevent obesity and other diet-related diseases.”

She pointed to the agency’s Better Living for Texans program that teaches low-income people how to stretch their food dollars while still opting for nutritious foods; the Do Well, Be Well program that helps those with diabetes learn basic nutrition and self-care management; and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education program that helps families and children learn skills to help develop nutritionally sound diets.

Coupled with the need for knowledge on nutrition choices, however, is the issue of affordable fresh produce. To overcome the problem of access to healthy fruits and vegetables, AgriLife Extension experts are showing residents in the food deserts how to affordably grow food at their homes.

Some of these efforts have included schools where children grew vegetables in containers, then sampled the produce, learned to cook with the produce they grew and participated in taste tests and the ranking of recipes, which were sent home to their families. Williams-Willis said this helps include the children in decision making and leadership in making healthy choices.

Cylinder Garden at MacDoogle Elementary in Houston. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Skip Richter).

In other areas, Richter noted, soil was piled over an unused parking lot to create a small urban farm.

The AgriLife Extension specialists train people to become Master Gardeners who in turn volunteer to teach residents gardening skills for home production, he noted.

“The single best way to improve diets is with a backyard or home garden,” he said. “It’s economical and can be done whether on concrete downtown or at an apartment with buckets on a patio or balcony.”

He cited one community garden that yielded 10,000 pounds for its residents from 1,000 square feet of garden beds. Almost 13,500 youths in Harris County participated in a Cylinder Gardening project to produce vegetables in 5-gallon buckets cut in half.

Williams-Willis said  AgriLife Extension has “a long and proud history of assisting producers across the state. These resources are now also being used to address many of the food security issues in urban communities across the state.

“I think there is something inherent in all of us that we love to see things grow,” Williams-Willis said. “And the realization that if we take care of things and nurture things, they will grow. And I think that whole spirit of helping to nurture and to help our children and our communities grow is part of the real strength of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.”

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