Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a Healthy Food Financing Initiative program during its Dec. 3 meeting.

The countywide competitive grant program will provide funding to support healthy food retail, nutrition education and urban agriculture in underserved communities throughout Harris County.

In a Sept. 24 Commissioners Court meeting, the Harris County Community Services Department was authorized to create a program committee, led by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, to create a program description, map out a grant process and report the budget implications of the proposed program. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative program is expected to be implemented in 2020.

Keith Downey, president of Kashmere Gardens, said underserved communities in Harris County lack resources offering wide selections of healthy food options.

“Our communities presently have a higher share of convenience stores and small food markets,” Downey said. “These limited options tend to carry foods of lower nutritional quality while costing more compared to large food chains, which have a wider variety of healthy options and lower prices.”

According to Houston Food Bank Government Officer Melanie Pang, 17% of Harris County residents are food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, other Houston Food Bank data found that within Spring and Klein’s nine ZIP codes, the percentage of food-insecure residents ranged from 10.9% in 77389, along the Grand Parkway, to 29.3% in 77090, near I-45 and FM 1960 in 2016. Nonprofit officials that address food insecurity needs said those numbers are rising.

Heidi McPherson, American Heart Association senior director and co-leader for the Greater Houston Coalition on Social Determinants of Health, said food insecurity is a countywide issue that especially affects low-income neighborhoods.

“The Coalition’s tracking has demonstrated that patients are screening positive for food insecurity across the county,” McPherson said. “This is a countywide issue, not just the food desert areas. However, low-income neighborhoods around the county have far fewer supermarkets and less access to healthy foods.”

According to McPherson, inability to access healthy food options can increase the chances of developing chronic disease and other health issues.

“When people lack access to healthy foods, they are at a higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease,” McPherson said.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, a study by Harris County Public Health found there was a nearly 24-year range in average lifespan that varied across the county from as low as 65 years to as high as 89 years. According to the report, the Memorial/Bear Creek area has the highest average lifespan, while the East Little York/Settegast area has the lowest.

A Nov. 12 press release about the study also found that one in three residents ages 12-17 is overweight or obese, while some communities in Harris County have more than 50% of adults who are classified as obese, as previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper.

McPherson said an individual’s environment can play a large role in decreasing the chances of developing future health issues. She said this could include creating safer spaces for residents to exercise and better access to food markets with healthy food options.

“Heart disease is 80% preventable and 20% genetics. That 80% we have control over is not just impacted by personal decisions, but also greatly influenced by our surroundings,” McPherson said.

Pang said the Houston Food Bank looks forward to the implementation of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Program, because it diversifies resources for people dealing with food insecurity.

“The Houston Food Bank is proud to work with our network of 1,500 community partners who help us get food [to] people who fall on hard times,” Pang said. “Our new mission and vision is a world that doesn’t need food banks. We acknowledge that food access can’t look just one way. It has to be as diverse as Houston is and the solutions ought to be as well.”