New Farmers Markets Bring Healthy Produce to Unlikely Places

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Dr. Ann Smith Barnes poses next to Aldine Health Center's Wednesday farmers market
Harris Health System is addressing its patients' health struggles with a new initiative that brings low-cost produce to residents of food deserts across the county, albeit in unusual locations.

“Good morning ma’am, all our buckets start at one dollar today…”

That’s Renea Gray, owner of a non-profit called Veggie Pals, Inc.

She’s selling produce today not at a grocery store, but at Houston’s Aldine Health Center.

“We have blueberries for two dollars today, and strawberries are marked down to two dollars. We have any bag of grapes, red or green, seedless, for three dollars a bag.”

This farmers market is part of a program called Healthy Harvest. It’s a collaboration between Harris Health System and Veggie Pals that sells convenient fruit and vegetables at low prices in five of Harris County’s health centers.

Dr. Ann Smith Barnes, the Medical Director of Weight Management Services and Disease Prevention for Harris Health System, started the program.

She woke up one night wishing she could put farmers markets in health clinics to better address Houston’s health issues.

“Asking patients to eat more fruits and vegetables, to avoid fast food and high calorie options and really to focus on things that we know would improve their health was challenging for a lot of patients because they found it costly, they lived in food deserts, so they didn’t have easy access to healthy produce, and then there was a dissociation between ‘my health’ and ‘what I put in my body.’ And so this really began to try to address all three of those barriers.”

The USDA describes food deserts as low-income communities in which at least 1/3 of the population lives over a mile from a grocery store. Harris County is filled with them.

Barnes says that after a one year trial period that began in November of 2011 and positive reviews, the program began again this spring with a newly finalized schedule.

And, she says, this low-priced produce is open to everyone.

“Anyone can shop there. And you know we really wanted it to be not just a resource for the patients that are served by the clinics and Harris Health System but also for the larger community and for the staff.”

Markets will be held at five different health centers, one day each a week Monday through Friday at around 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The exact schedule can be found in the upcoming weeks on Harris Health’s website.

Healthy Harvest accepts cash and Lone Star Cards as payment.