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Residents of the largely Latino city of Brownsville, Texas, struggle to find affordable, healthy food in their neighborhoods, and overweight/obesity rates were higher than 80%, said City Commissioner Dr. Rose Gowen. The situation spurred health officials, researchers, and community members to unite and create a farmers’ market that would serve up fresh produce to residents.
Awareness: Downtown Brownsville, Texas, is home to many low-income Latino families. Many of these families struggle with chronic diseases, like diabetes. In fact, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, more than a quarter of children in Brownsville are overweight or obese.
Brownsville City Commissioner and physician Dr. Rose Gowen saw this decline in community health.
Eating healthier—one of the key ways to improve health and reduce the risk of obesity—was hard to do in a city where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited, Gowen said.
Urban sprawl in Brownsville had forced the closure of existing farmers’ markets and community gardens to pave way for shopping malls and chain restaurants, she said.
Wanting improved food choices for residents, Gowen and officials from the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville (School of Public Health) teamed up with other physicians, public officials, and community organizers to begin brainstorming ways to put Brownsville back on the road to health.
Learn: Researchers and community health workers from the School of Public Health began going into the Latino community and teaching folks about how they can make their meals healthier and add more physical activity into their day. Through its program and media campaign, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, families received newsletters focused on healthy living and visits by promotoras (Latino community health workers). The community began to open up about the struggles they faced to live healthy lives.
From the community outreach, researchers found that economic development, urban design, and education were among the areas community members cared about.
Health was also a top priority, said Gowen.
Frame Issue: Conversations began between the School of Public Health coalition and community members on how to address these issues.
The coalition wanted to address multiple issues at once, said Belinda Reiniger, assistant professor at the School of Public Health and an integral member of the coalition.
One of the first ideas to crop up was a farmers’ market.
“[A farmer’s market is] one way to improve physical activity and healthy food choice,” she said.
Education/Mobilization: The group promoted the idea for a farmers’ market through local media and the community-wide Tu Salud Si Cuenta health campaign.
“From the very beginning we did a lot of work on planning the market to meet customer demand,” Reininger said. “But in order to reach low-income families, we had a team of promotoras from the School of Public Health do outreach in low income neighborhoods.”
Debate: Of course, a farmers’ market needs farmers.
“We needed to identify local farmers who would be willing to sell produce,” Reininger said.
Many farms in the area are big, commercial-oriented farms and didn’t want to take time away from their business to sell at a local farmers’ market. But Reiniger was able to find a handful of local farmers who were interested in selling at the market year-round.
Activation: The group continued to generate support for a market in the local media, and Reininger continued to reach out to local farmers to bring more vendors on board.
They also wanted to identify ways to draw low-income customers. They developed the “farm fresh voucher program,” which provides $10 of vouchers to low-income families to come and try produce at the market.
“Families are reached with these vouchers through educational efforts, like a promotora education session at the local school, or a nutritionist session provided after a parks and rec department exercise class,” said Reininger, Noting that vouchers are spent like cash at the market for produce, and are paid for through grants or donations.
Frame Policy: The City of Brownsville Parks and Recreation Department were big supporters of the efforts to improve the city’s health.
After some discussions with the coalition, Parks and Recreation Department officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)—a written agreement between two parties that outlines expectations with a common goal in mind—so the group could use city land to install a farmers’ market and sell fresh produce to the community. The downtown Brownsville location was perfect: just outside the federal courthouse, across the street from the zoo, and next to the museum of fine art.
Change: Brownsville Farmers’ Market opened in October 2008 via the MOU. The market is open year-round, from 9 a.m. to noon each Saturday. While the Parks and Rec Department commits to keeping the space clean, safe, and ready for the public, the market manager commits to being in charge of the nuts-and-bolts of running the market.
Implementation: The Brownsville Farmers’ Market offers the community the chance to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and so much more.
“I love bringing my grandchildren here to the farmers’ market because they learn where food comes from,” said Rosie Bustinza, who is a regular at the market. “This just takes us back to the way our ancestors, our grandparents, and our parents use to go and shop at the Mercado.”
The market is open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.
Five years later, you can find the market at its original location in downtown Brownsville. The market offers a wide variety of locally grown produce as well as homemade goods like breads and salsas.
Equity: The mission of the Brownsville Farmers’ Market is to create a weekly event that offers nutritional education, health services, and fresh, locally grown produce to folks in South Texas. Because they want to reach everyone, the market proudly accepts food assistance— Latinos comprise 41 percent of Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and 15 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants—ensuring that income does not stop someone from getting fresh, healthy food.
Sustainability: While the market has proven popular with the community, some folks were worried about access to fresh produce for future generations.
Farmers were telling Reiniger: “We’re close to retirement, we’ve got to develop the next generation.”
So the Brownsville Farmers’ Market coalition, now a non-profit called the Brownsville Wellness Coalition, has launched its first community garden, with more in the works, with the goal to teach young people about growing fruits and vegetables while providing neighborhoods with healthy, accessible food in the process.
Indeed, the market set an early tone for many more healthy initiatives for the city, including the community gardens, new walking trails, and much more.
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.