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Think of the mouthwatering crunch when biting into a juicy apple or the crisp snap of a carrot.  Most of us can easily purchase fresh fruit and vegetables.  But for many low income families, the trip through the grocery produce section is nothing but a colorful route toward the aisles with foods they can afford – processed items high in fat, sodium and sugar. 

In our most recent survey of the people served by our 600 partner charities, 78% of clients told the Houston Food Bank that purchasing cheap, unhealthy food is their most common strategy for coping with inadequate food budgets.  Fresh produce is simply out of reach as a staple element of their home menus. 

One in six Texas families are in this predicament, considered by the USDA to be food insecure because they can’t afford sufficient nutritious food on a consistent basis.  Theywantto eat healthy foods.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are consistently the most requested items. 

The lack of nutritious food is a medical liability.  Poor dietary health puts people at greater risk of obesity and chronic illnesses like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.  And quite frankly, that’s not just risky for an individual.  It’s expensive for all of us, a true threat to our state’s prosperity.  Consider that almost 25 percent of our state budget is spent on Medicaid alone.  A primary cost driver is chronic disease, much of it diet-related. 

Dr. Ray Perryman of The Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm, writes that “hunger is a pocketbook issue that adversely impacts every corner of the US economy and every individual…” The high cost to our society transcends health care alone.  Dr. Perryman’s research translates hunger’s impact to a loss of 2.5 million US jobs on an ongoing basis. 

Our state legislators have the power and the opportunity to take meaningful action this year to put more fruits and veggies on Texas dinner plates and ultimately improve the overall health of Texans.  The Houston Food Bank and our counterparts across the state are asking the Texas Legislature to approve $20 million so we can acquire and distribute an additional 136 million pounds of fresh produce – much of it otherwise left in fields that would be plowed under – to food insecure Texans. 

That’s a high return on the investment.  With one dollar, food banks could provide nearly seven dollars in fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Produce comprises almost 40% of the food distributed by the Houston Food Bank.  We would love for that number to go much higher.  In addition to distribution through our traditional channels, we are developing some innovative programs that would use fresh produce as a carrot – to inject an apt metaphor. 

Through new and existing partnerships, we are developing a strategy that incorporates produce as an incentive to low income clients for their participation in programs that can help them build a better future.  As an example, the Houston Food Bank provides produce to the San Jose Clinic, which uses it to reward patients who attend regular diabetes education classes.  The same model can be applied in any number of settings where people can receive services that help them improve their lives, such as job training, education, housing assistance, financial literacy or health care.

Another example of produce as a life-changer is Brighter Bites, a Food Bank partner program that distributes weekly bags of free vegetables and fruit in fall and spring to kids in high-need schools, along with nutrition education and recipes to take home.  Brighter Bites introduces low income kids and their parents to items they may have never seen or tasted: kale, mangos, mushrooms, blueberries.  Quite often, even the most common foods are out of reach to these families.  One child was ecstatic about tasting his first orange.  Research shows that participating families and their children continue to consume the produce after the program cycle ends.

Fresh produce should not be a rare treat.  Good nutrition is essential to good health.  Food banks in our state are in a position to take productive action if Texas legislators authorize funding to help us fill family produce bins.

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