'Food desert' creates obstacles to healthy eating
POSTED: Monday, February 3, 2014 - 11:15pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 10:10am
El Paso, TX (KTSM) — Eating healthy is important for preventing illnesses like obesity and diabetes, which are prevalent in the borderland. However, it's not easy for everyone to do, and cost is only part of the problem.
The United States Department of Agriculture identifies parts of El Paso as a food desert, which is defined as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Food deserts are in low-income communities and can be urban areas in the city, or in more rural areas.
While grocery shopping, Valeria Blanco, a South Central El Paso resident, looked over a list from the United States Department of Agriculture website that lists "cheap and healthy" options for people to select when grocery shopping.
She lives in the 79901 zip code, which according to data from the City of El Paso, is the poorest zip code in El Paso. Blanco is among the 44-percent of households in El Paso that the U.S.D.A. says don't have a car and must travel more than half a mile to get to a supermarket.
Valeria doesn't have a car and has to walk about four blocks to get to the grocery store.
She said she finds most of what she needs at Silvia's grocery store in South Central El Paso. That store had all but two items on the U.S.D.A. list, romaine lettuce and zucchini.
A search of grocery stores in the 79901 zip code found that Valeria would have to walk nearly three miles to get to a store that has every single item on the U.S.D.A. list.
The search for healthy food within city limits can be a challenge, but the problem is even greater in rural areas such as Lordsburg, New Mexico where there is only one grocery store in the entire town, and options in the store are limited.
The Hidalgo Youth Demonstration Garden is providing the community with a healthier alternative.
John Allen is the program director of the Hidalgo County Cooperative Extension Office at New Mexico State University. He started the garden two and a half years ago with the help of middle school students and youth groups who volunteered their time to build and paint the raised garden beds.
The garden is now producing about 20 pounds of produce every week, and serves about 30 to 40 people every month. That doesn't include the people who go to the garden to learn how to start their own gardens at home and are growing their own fruits and vegetables.
Beth Cox, program specialist with Hidalgo Medical Services, said data shows that people in the Lordsburg area are not eating right.
"The physicians would tell the people you're not eating right, come back in two weeks and let's retest your blood pressure, you need to eat this food and this food. In two weeks they'd come back and say, 'I couldn't get that. It costs too much. I couldn't afford it. They didn't have it,'" said Cox.
She said the garden has helped residents battle illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and heard disease.
The project not only introduces people to vegetables, it also teaches them different ways to eat them.
A grant is allowing the program to expand, and soon there will be an outdoor shaded classroom with a seating area to hold gardening and cooking classes that include the entire family.
"If a kid grows it, they're going to eat it. So if we start there, then we feel like we're going to educate them," said Cox.
The program seems to be gaining momentum.
"In December we just completed another survey and we found that 20 percent of the people surveyed had increased the amount of fruits and vegetables," said Cox.
The garden also includes a farmer's market during the summer months. Allen and Cox said they plan to extend it into the fall this year.
Allen said he is also always looking for volunteers to help maintain the garden.
If you're interested in helping, John Allen can be reached at 575-542-9291, or via email at email@example.com.