MCALLEN, RGV – Texas A&M’s Working on Wellness Program conducted an initial assessment of the Rio Grande Valley and found that approximately 52 percent of the census tracts in the four-county region can be described as food deserts.

As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a food desert in a rural area is where a person has to travel ten or more miles to access fresh fruit and vegetables. In an urban area, a food desert is where an individual has to travel more than one mile to access the same types of food.

Evelia Castillo, program coordinator of Texas A&M’s Working on Wellness Program, says they conducted an assessment of the whole region to assess the gaps in access to healthy food and/or physical activity. Results show over 50 percent of the region is a food desert. The majority of the population in food deserts may be people who are predominantly of low socioeconomic status, with a low income and a lack transportation, especially those living in a colonia, Castillo explained.

“We found out there were still a lot of areas that could be improved in terms of access whether that be walking trails, sidewalks, or healthy food retail-like groceries,” Castillo said. “[Approximately] 47 percent of (census tracts in) Hidalgo County are food deserts, specifically in the colonia areas, so we’ve been working with local stakeholders to try to address some of those the gaps that we found in terms of access to healthy food and physical activity.”

The Working on Wellness program is a part of the Healthy South Texas Initiative John Sharp, chancellor of Texas A&M University, announced back in June 2014. According to a previous article by the Rio Grande Guardian, Sharp said the Healthy South Texas Initiative will promote prevention at the most local level of community, empower patients to take control of their own health and wellness.

Castillo says through Healthy South Texas, the goal is working on improving wellness throughout the Rio Grande Valley. The Working on Wellness program specifically focuses on policy systems and environmental changes to increase access to healthy food and physical activity. Target communities include Weslaco, South McAllen, Penitas and San Carlos.

“We helped establish a farmer’s market in San Carlos, which is a colonia between Edinburg and Edcouch-Elsa. Now, they have a farmer’s market the first Monday of every month. We’ve also partnered with the food bank there to be able to bring the WIC vouchers that can be used at the farmer’s market, redeemed on-site for fruits and vegetables,” Castillo said.

“We’re also working through the Rio Grande Valley Food Policy Council to look at different policy solutions that will increase access to healthy food. We’re working with Commissioner Palacios’ office to introduce a healthy food resolution and hopefully we’ll get their support on that. This would hopefully designate a representative countywide on the food policy council to look at those kinds of issues.”

The Palacios Castillo referred to is Joseph Palacios, the outgoing Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 4. His precinct includes San Carlos.

Other projects the Working on Wellness program have completed include adding five miles of bicycle lanes in Weslaco, adding a walking trail at Gibson Park beside the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, and establishing an outdoor exercise station at Palm View Park in the City of McAllen.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Evelia Castillo of Texas A&M’s Working on Wellness campaign.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first of a two-part series on Texas A&M University’s work on healthy living in South Texas. Part Two, featuring Carrie L. Byington, the dean of Texas A&M’s College of Medicine, will be posted next week.