Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. More than three times as many children are obese today compared to a generation ago.
In Central Texas, some of the highest childhood obesity rates can be found in the Southeast Austin neighborhood of Dove Springs. The area has attracted the attention of social scientists who are looking at everything from the built environment, to the number of parks, to the socio-economic demographics, to the availability of healthy food.
It’s that last item – access to fresh produce in particular – that is the focus of an effort by Austin’s Sustainable Food Center. The non-profit has partnered with other groups to set up a temporary produce stand at the Dove Springs Recreation Center for three hours on Wednesdays for part of the summer.
It’s a pilot project, and a way to forge connections with the people who live there, according to the Sustainable Food Center’s deputy director Andrew Smiley.
"I think we know that there are food deserts dotting Austin, and that Dove Springs is just one of the truest examples of a food desert," Smiley said. "Limited access to healthy food and lots of access to unhealthy food, like fast food and packaged foods.”
Elena Rodriguez was shopping at the food stand last week. She lives in Dove Springs and cooks for a family of seven. Her favorite thing to make is chicken soup with lots of vegetables like squash, carrots and green beats.
"That’s the best for me and my children as well," she said in Spanish.
Rodriguez doesn’t have a car, so she has to take two buses to get to H-E-B or Fiesta Mart. And that takes an hour each way.
“I don’t like it. But we have to eat. And for me to carry the food on the bus, it’s not easy," she said.
Rodriguez might not normally spend the extra money on local organic produce at a farmer’s market. But for three hours a week, at the Dove Springs Neighborhood Farm Stand, she can buy it at prices that are comparable to grocery stores.
That’s because the produce is grown by another non-profit, Urban Roots, which trains teenagers from Reagan, LBJ and Eastside Memorial High Schools on sustainable farming techniques.
Joe House is one of those teenagers. He’s going into his senior year at LBJ and wants to become an environmental engineer.
"I already like the environment because my grandmother had a garden. And I helped her with that. And this was just like a bigger garden," he said while helping to weigh and sell produce at the farm stand.
So this farm stand is making fresh produce available in a neighborhood with little access to it and it’s providing an outlet for teens to learn about farming. But how much of a difference can that really make on Dove Spring’s childhood obesity rate?
Urban Roots says they’re selling about 200 pounds of produce per week. That might seem like a lot until you consider that more than 15,000 people live in Dove Springs, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Here’s another measure of whether access to farmers markets helps low-income families eat more locally-grown organic produce: The Sustainable Food Center’s food stamp program, which it runs at its four farmers markets, accounted for slightly more than 0.1 percent of sales last year, according to its own annual report.
Roland Sturm at the RAND Corporation spends his time researching how urban design and neighborhood characteristics affect lifestyles and health. Sturm likes what the Sustainable Food Center is doing in Dove Springs, but he doesn’t think it will make a big difference on childhood obesity rates.
“This is a good thing. They are improving diet quality. They are helping disadvantaged communities. I think this is a good thing," Sturm said in a phone interview.
"The other question is, will this combat obesity? No, I don’t think so. They’re doing something positive. But they’re not going to get kids not to buy junk food or other stuff. It’s just not going to happen," he said.
Sturm is among a group of researchers who see a fixation on food deserts as misguided. He says it’s not the lack of access to healthy food that contributes to child obesity. It’s the easy and cheap availability of unhealthy food in convenience stores, fast food restaurants and vending machines. Get rid of that, Sturm says, and you really attack the problem.
Andrew Smiley with the Sustainable Food Center realizes that having a neighborhood farm stand open for three hours a week will have a limited impact. But he says it’s just part of their effort.
"That includes community gardens, school and home gardens, that includes learning how to cook healthy, while at the same time engaging community residents in helping to determine the path that our solution should take, and doing a little research to determine what’s working well and what needs some refinement," Smiley said.
That research is happening with help from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Dr. Sandra Evans and her team of researchers will conduct door-to-door surveys, asking people things like what they cook and how often they eat at fast food restaurants. The team of researchers is also tracking 150 individual families for five years, measuring their body mass index and other health factors to find out what type of interventions might work.
In the meantime, the Dove Springs Neighborhood Farm Stand pilot project is coming to an end next week. It will be open one more time, from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday, July 17.