Creating Healthier Houston Families, One Carrot at a Time

When 12-year-old Natalie decided she wanted to play volleyball for her middle school, she was required to undergo a physical to make sure she was healthy enough for sports.But her routine checkup uncovered a troubling problem. Natalie’s blood pressure was dangerously high and her elevated blood sugar levels meant she had undiagnosed  type  2 diabetes.

Natalie’s mother immediately scheduled an appointment with the Lamar Health Center, a clinic that’s part of Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation’s network of Health Centers for Schools. Not only did Natalie get the help she needed to manage her diabetes and blood pressure, she was also enrolled in a new program designed to provide families across the Greater Houston area with free access to fresh produce.

“We’re a working class family and we have a lot of bills to pay, so this program was really attractive to me because it could help me afford to buy healthy fruits and vegetables for my children,” Natalie’s mother, Monica Gonzales said. “I had never really purchased these items before because I didn’t grow up eating them, but I quickly found out that my children actually love broccoli and cauliflower!”

Making Fruits & Veggies More Affordable for Families

The program is part of a unique partnership between Memorial Hermann, the national retailer Target and Wholesome Wave, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to making fruits and vegetables more affordable for low-income communities. Wholesome Wave started its produce-prescription program, FVRx, in a pediatric clinic in a low-income community in Los Angeles. Thanks to a grant underwritten by Target, Wholesome Wave expanded the successful initiative to Houston, where Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation was selected as the sole grant recipient.

Houston was a prime place to launch the effort because of its high rates of food insecurity. Nearly one out of every five families in the Houston area struggles with hunger or a lack of access to healthy and nutritious food, almost double the national average. The crisis is even more acute among area youth, where an estimated one out of every four children under the age of 18 faces the threat of hunger every day. Nine percent of Houston’s high school students reported going at least seven days without eating fresh fruit, according to the results of a communitywide survey published last year.

As part of the initiative, nurse practitioners, dietitians, and social workers at Memorial Hermann Health Centers for Schools identified approximately 300 families in need and provided them with vouchers that can be redeemed for free fruits and vegetables at any Target store or at participating farmers markets.

Learning to Cook Healthier Meals

In addition to receiving the vouchers, program participants attended healthy cooking demonstrations hosted by the Houston Food Bank and received a bilingual cookbook with recipes incorporating fresh produce.

“At one of the classes we learned how to cook squash with eggs,” Monica, said. “It was really nice to learn how to prepare different, healthy meals.”

Natalie’s family was one of the 300 that participated in the pilot program at Memorial Hermann, which was the only health system in Houston selected to participate.

Changing Diets & Their Health

Being able to have fresh produce at their fingertips has not only helped improve Natalie’s overall health, it has also benefitted her three siblings and her parents. Natalie’s mother said that all six of them have changed their diets to incorporate healthier options like carrots, tomatoes and squash – even the toddler!

“We’re all trying new foods we’ve never had before and we’re discovering how delicious fresh fruits and vegetables can be,” she said. “I realized how important it was to expose my kids to these new options and I learned that they actually like eating them.”

The Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation is working to create a healthier Houston by implementing signature, evidence-based solutions designed to create improve the spaces where people live, work and play. Learn more about their initiatives.

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Ali Vise