McALLEN, RGV – A Washington Post story about Rio Grande Valley colonia residents using food stamps to buy junk food and becoming obese was referenced at two conferences in the region this past week.

At an event sponsored by the USDA and UT-Pan American in at the Embassy Suites in McAllen last Thursday, keynote speaker Judith Canales referenced the recent article by reporter Eli Saslow titled “Too Much of Too Little.”

Canales, state executive director for USDA’s Texas Farm Service Agency, said she is concerned about a proliferation of “food deserts” and a lack of transportation that prevents colonia residents from getting to a supercenter or a farmer’s market to purchase fresh produce.

At a luncheon at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance on Saturday to celebrate Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s 100th Anniversary, Luisa Colin, an extension agent who specializes in nutrition education, gave brief closing remarks. Colin is featured in the Washington Post article. After the luncheon, keynote speaker Dr. Douglas Steele, director of A&M’s AgriLife Extension, gave an interview to the Guardian about the article. So, did another speaker, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

“I am pleased the Washington Post focused on this issue. It is important we educate Congress of the problems people face. And it is not just in the Rio Grande Valley. People in Congress who want to cut back on food stamps and at the same time increase subsidies to large, corporate farms are not educated on the real problems we have in the country, in trying to feed hungry people and getting them to eat in a healthy way,” Hinojosa told the Guardian. “These stories help.”

Saslow interviewed a number of low-income families about the choices they make with their food stamps. Blanca Salas said she put “quantity before quality” in filling her shopping cart, often purchasing cheap, less nutritious food. Now, Saslow wrote, Sasas’ 13-year old daughter Clarissa has a darkening ring around her neck, suggesting early-onset diabetes from too much sugar. And nine-year old son Antonio shares dosages of his mother’s cholesterol medication. Blanca herself is too sick to work, “receiving disability payments at age 40 and testing her blood-sugar level twice each day to guard against the stroke doctors warned was forthcoming as a result of her diet,” Saslow wrote.

The Washington Post article states that Hidalgo County has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with almost 40 percent of residents enrolled in the food-stamp program. It says there is widespread reliance on cheap, processed foods, resulting in rates of diabetes and obesity that are double the national average. This, in turn, fuels the country’s highest per-capita spending on health care.

“This is what El Futuro looks like in the Rio Grande Valley,” Saslow wrote. “The country’s hungriest region is also its most overweight, with 38.5 percent of the people obese. For one of the first times anywhere in the United States, children in South Texas have a projected life span that is a few years shorter than that of their parents.”

The Washington Post article also mentions state Rep. Terry Canales’ unsuccessful bid to change state law to stop food stamps from being used to purchase energy drinks that are high in caffeine and sugar.

Click here to read Eli Saslow’s “Too Much of Too Little” article and the accompanying photos from Michael S. Williamson.

Judith Canales is not related Terry Canales. However, like the Edinburg legislator the USDA official is very concerned about the nutritional value of food being consumed by many colonia residents. Canales is a native of Eagle Pass, Texas, and therefore knows firsthand about life on the Texas-Mexico border.

Judith Canales, executive director for USDA’s Texas Farm Service Agency, referenced the Washington Post's 'Too Much of Too Little' article in a speech in McAllen.
Judith Canales, executive director for USDA’s Texas Farm Service Agency, referenced the Washington Post’s ‘Too Much of Too Little’ article in a speech in McAllen.

Judith Canales points out that one of USDA’s seven mission points is nutrition. She is a big supporter of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

“What I saw in the Washington Post article is that people are having to make difficult choices with the limited amount of monies they have to purchase food for their families. I saw it also as the whole concept of food desert. The notion of food desert is that while many have a running vehicle to take them to a grocery store, not everyone has,” Judith Canales said.

“Many do not have the transportation to get them to a grocery store that has choices and the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. They may be near a small store that has just small provisions. They have little access to anything more. I know these families do the best they can.”

Judith Canales said she is also concerned about nutrition education. She said many parents do not know how to read a food label and thus do not know what they are feeding their children, or themselves.

“Our diet has a huge impact on our health. In this article I saw education and accessibility and the aspect of food deserts, living far away from a grocery store. How am I going to get to a grocery store? What if you are elderly, you may not have the ability to drive any more. How are you going to get to a grocery store?”

Judith Canales said she would not judge the decisions made by parents living in colonias. “What I am interested in is problem-solving, so more people can have access to healthy food. That is why it is important to encourage more agriculture, so we can have people comfortable about growing food in their own gardens at home. Perhaps that will be part of the solution,” she said.

Judith Canales added: “Obviously the Washington Post is a national paper, a global paper. The important thing is it has shone a light on a problem. Let us work on a solution.”

Dr. Steele did not reference the “Too Much of Too Little” article in his keynote speech at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension luncheon. However, he was keen to talk about it with the Guardian afterwards.

“What we do in outreach and education sometimes cannot undo the political boundaries we face. There are policies in place that prevent some things from happening, such as the availability of food. We worked very hard to allow food stamps, or supplemental nutrition assistance programs, to be used to purchase things in a farmer’s market. You can now take food stamps and actually exchange these for fresh produce. You have to have policies that allow people to make better decisions,” Steel said.

Steele said the recession has also had an impact. “There are some areas where food stores are not going to move in to because it is not economically feasible. What are the limiting factors we can remove? It could be transportation. It could be access to the food. It could be about making it economically feasible for corporations to move into an area. We have to move past outreach and education. We have to look at public policy and what we as a society think is the greatest needs we face today.”

Steele said is important to address the root problem, not the symptom.

“The symptom is people take federal dollars for food and nutrition and they go to the place most convenient to purchase items. All you have to do is walk into a convenience store or a gas station/grocery store and look on the shelves. You are not going to see a shelf full of fresh fruit and vegetables. You are going to see processed food, rows and rows of soda, you are going to see potato chips and you are going to see candy bars,” Steele said.

“We have got to work to address the availability issued. We are a very food secure nation. We are not worried, as a nation, about where our next meal is going to come from tomorrow or even next week. But what is available in a certain area is something we have not challenged. We look at Texas as being a very urban center and it is. But we are also the largest rural state in the nation. We have got to understand where these food deserts exist and try to create policies that overcome that so nutritious foods are available.”

Steele pointed out that almost 73 percent of the Farm Bill goes on SNAP, with less than 30 percent focusing on a security net for agricultural producers, subsidies, research and education. He also said Congress has not passed a Farm Bill for the past two years. “We need a strong food production system but also a strong food delivery system. I do not think we have met the challenge yet. The Washington Post article reinforced the fact that this has not met been yet. There has to be consensus. It is not an urban versus rural issue. It is not a farm and non-farm issue, it is an issue the country has to address.”

Sen. Hinojosa had nothing but praise for the work AgriLife Extension does generally and, in particular, its efforts to educate colonia residents on the importance of nutrition.

“AgriLife has done a great job in reaching out into the colonias and teaching families how to eat healthy, how to cook healthy, how to take care of the families. This issue with the food stamps and how they are being used to buy junk food that is very detrimental to the health of the families that receive food stamps is important. We have an epidemic of diabetes, of obesity, and other health problems because of the bad eating habits,” Hinojosa said.

“AgriLife Extension plays a very important role in reaching out to the colonias, of reaching out to the families, to teach them good eating habits, to teach them how to eat healthy and to teach them how to avoid some of the junk food that causes so many of the health problems we have.”

In response to the problem of colonia residents living too far from a farmer’s market or an HEB or Walmart supercenter, Hinojosa said: “I know the families face many challenges but there is carpooling. Many of the family members work in agriculture, they bring home fresh food. What is happening is they are being bombarded with advertising. When you watch TV, when you listen to the radio, all this fast food, junk food, is being promoted. It is very unhealthy. I do not think they (colonia residents) are so isolated that they cannot get to the supermarket or they cannot get to a grocery store. The problem is they need to be taught how to eat healthy, how to maximize and use fresh vegetables to feed their families. It is quite easy to buy a bag of fritos instead of cook a healthy meal.”