Residents shopping at the Brownsville Farmer's Market are taking a healthy step in fighting an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the Texas Lower Rio Grande.
Valley by eating more fruits and vegetables since the market opened last November, according to researchers.
The Brownsville Farmer's Market is a collaborative effort to provide fresh locally grown and affordable produce, increase the awareness of chronic diseases associated with obesity and educate consumers on the importance of nutrition. Faculty and students at The University of Texas School of Public Health Brownsville.
Regional Campus created the market, the brainchild of Belinda Reininger, Dr.P.H., associate professor of behavioural sciences at the UT School of Public Health.
More than 400 residents shop weekly at the Saturday market and surveys have found 80 percent of them are now eating more fruits and vegetables and 78 percent reported eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. Surveys also revealed that 84 percent of shoppers find the quality of the produce at the market exceeds the quality of produce offered elsewhere.
Research has shown that the predominately Hispanic community of Cameron County in the Texas 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.
"A significant portion of the obesity problem here is because local diets are high in carbohydrates and include very few vegetables and fruits," 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. "Many of the diabetes cases are related to the problem of obesity, which is beginning in childhood and adolescence years."
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, where Brownsville is located. Fisher-Hoch's analysis found 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 is critical in fighting obesity and preventing diabetes in the area, said 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.
Market shoppers have access to health screenings on-site nutrition, obesity and diabetes information provided by the UT School of Public Health, Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and other organizations.
The market is located along Linear Park's walking trail, which the committee hopes will encourage people to increase their physical activity. Combining fresh produce with physical activity is important for obesity and diabetes prevention and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Through a grant from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the 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 Gowen, a long-time local resident and a driving force behind the market.
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 its Farmers Market Nutritional Program to Cameron County. The committee also wants to provide chef classes for attendees to learn healthier cooking options for their fresh produce.
The committee hopes attendance will continue to grow and spark an interest in creating community gardens and eventually a co-op in the Brownsville area. "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 has received permission to extend the market until July and to begin another market season in October 2009. They are currently seeking funding opportunities to bring the market to the community year-round.