To fight an epidemic of obesity and its life-threatening complications in the Brownsville area, faculty and students at The University of Texas School of Public Health Brownsville Regional Campus have come up with a strong weapon: a farmer’s market loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Research has shown that the predominately Hispanic community of Cameron County in the Valley has twice the national average of diabetes, a co-morbidity of obesity. According to the Texas Diabetes Council 2008 Fact sheet, Hispanics ages 18-44 have the highest prevalence of diabetes (6.8 percent) among all ethnic age groups in Texas. In 2002, The U.S.-Mexico Border Diabetes Prevention and Control Project noted diabetes as the fourth leading cause of death among Hispanics in Texas.
The Brownsville Farmer’s Market, a collaborative effort to provide locally grown produce and increase the awareness of chronic diseases associated with obesity, is the brainchild of Belinda Reininger, Dr.P.H., associate professor of behavioral sciences at the UT School of Public Health. The market provides affordable fresh produce to the community, and it provides local farmers an outlet to sell their produce. It also gives health care experts the opportunity to educate shoppers on nutrition, obesity and diabetes.
Through a grant from the Texas Department of State Health Services, farmer’s market partner Su Clinica Familiar provides a voucher system for low-income families, who can receive $10 in vouchers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
That amount of money goes a long way at the market. “Last week I bought four cucumbers, six grapefruits, a dozen farm eggs, fresh cilantro and dill all for $10,” said Rose Gowen, M.D., medical director of the Clinical Research Unit at the UT School of Public Health and chair of the market’s board of directors.
The idea was developed over a year ago when graduate students, faculty members and the Texas Department of State Health Services saw a desperate need to provide residents with resources to prevent obesity and diabetes. Part of their plan of action was to research the current fruit and vegetable consumption of the Brownsville community.
“Based on our initial assessments of the community, it was clear that creating access to fresh fruits and vegetables was needed. As with most behavioral change efforts, education alone was not enough; environmental changes were needed too. That is when we partnered with stakeholders, including public officials, to create the Brownsville Farmer's Market,” Reininger said.
“Many of the diabetes cases are related to the problem of obesity, which is beginning in childhood and adolescence years,” said Gowen, a long-time local resident and a driving force behind the market. “A significant portion of the obesity problem here is because local diets are high in carbohydrates and include very few vegetables and fruits.”
In 2008, faculty of the Brownsville regional campus led by Susan Fisher-Hoch, M.D., professor of epidemiology at the UT School of Public Health, conducted a study on obesity in Cameron County. Fisher-Hoch’s analysisfound 52.2 percent of Cameron County adults older than 18 are considered obese (body mass index of 30 or higher) compared to the national average of 28 percent. The area also showed 27 percent of adolescents, particularly boys, are obese compared with 16 percent nationally.
Making healthy diet choices and changes is critical in fighting signs of obesity and preventing diabetes in the area, says Gowen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, which provide vitamins and minerals that help maintain and improve overall health as well as protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes. The 2000 Texas Healthy People Report revealed that only 23.4 percent of Texans were consuming five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Residents of the Brownsville area tend to not select vegetables because they often lack knowledge about healthy ways to incorporate them into their diet, Gowen said.
At the market, shoppers can discover a wide range of produce from cilantro and eggs to dragon fruit and tomatoes from local farmers at low prices.
Frequent market shopper Lee Lopez says, “The market produce is definitely fresher and has been handled less. My family and I enjoy the fresh produce and supporting local farmers.”
On-site nutrition, obesity and diabetes information is provided by the UT School of Public Health, Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and other organizations. Health screenings, such as glucose testing, are provided at a weekly health booth sponsored by the UT School of Public Health, local hospitals, DSHS and other organizations.
The response to the market has been strong. On opening day last November in Linear Park, more than 600 people attended. Several of the 13 vendors were completely sold out of their produce within the first hour of opening.
“I was overwhelmed by the positive response of the community to the market. Seeing local growers interact with community members and sharing information about their produce and healthy recipes was very rewarding after all of our work on the market,” said Vanessa Gartrell, graduate research assistant at the school’s Brownsville campus and one of the founders of the market.
The market is located along Linear Park’s walking trail, which the committee hopes will encourage people to increase their physical activity. Market shoppers walk or ride bicycles as they browse the merchandise from vendors. Combining fresh produce with physical activity is important for obesity and diabetes prevention and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Students studying kinesiology at The University of Texas School of Education Department of Health & Human Performance provide physical activity for children while parents shop.
The market is in its final stage of a certification process to become a state recognized farmer’s market. Once certified, organizers hope to allow families to use their Women, Infants and Children (WIC) card and food stamps to purchase fresh produce. Certification could also provide WIC with an opportunity to expand their Farmers Market Nutritional Program to Cameron County. The committee also hopes to provide chef classes for attendees to learn healthier cooking options for their fresh produce.
“It is important that everyone learn about healthy eating and active lifestyles. We hope the market will create a change in the entire city,” Gowen said.
The committee hopes the market will spark an interest in creating community gardens and eventually a co-op in the Brownsville area. The market is scheduled to be open from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday until March 2009.
The committee is currently seeking funding opportunities to bring the market to the community year-round.
Materials provided by University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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