Why Some Health Centers Hold Farmers Markets For Their Patients

Dr. Ann Smith Barnes poses next to Aldine Health Center's Wednesday farmers market. [Photo by Ellen Trinklein]
Harris Health System is addressing its patients’ health struggles with a new initiative. It brings low-cost produce to residents of food deserts across the county.

“Good morning ma’am, all our buckets start at $1 today…”

That’s Renea Gray, owner of a nonprofit called Veggie Pals. She’s selling produce today not at a grocery store, but at Houston’s Aldine Health Center.

“We have blueberries for $2 today, and strawberries are marked down to $2. We have any bag of grapes, red or green, seedless, for $3 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 several of Harris County’s health centers.

Dr. Ann Barnes is the medical director of Weight Management Services and Disease Prevention for Harris Health System.

She started the program after waking 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 a third of the population lives more than a mile from a grocery store. Harris County is filled with them.

Barnes says 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.

She says the low-priced market is open to everyone, as long as they have cash or a Lone Star Card.

“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 are held one day a week at different health centers throughout Harris County.