Brandon Wade/Special Contributor

Dallas’ health nonprofits have a new tool in their fight to increase food access

by Obed Manuel, Report for America Corps Member/Staff Writer | September 14, 2018

In the fight to increase food access in Dallas, area health nonprofits have a new weapon that will help them identify where Dallas faces the most urgent needs.

The City of Dallas Community Food Assessment, an interactive map that highlights key data like the concentration of diseases such as obesity and diabetes, was presented Friday at the seventh annual Dallas Hunger Summit, where dozens of area nutrition nonprofits gathered to listen to what Dallas’ hospital health systems and other health groups are doing to serve Dallas’ neediest.

Heather Lepeska, a manager at the City of Dallas’ Office of Economic Development, said during the presentation to about 200 attendees that the map took about a year to develop from data sources from the city, county, state and federal levels.

“We all have really good information and data on food access, hunger and health as it relates to what our interest areas are, but we hadn’t really coordinated and consolidated it into a document to give us a comprehensive snapshot of what we have here today,” Lepeska said.

The map highlights five key areas by ZIP code: concentration of grocery stores, community gardens, supplemental nutrition opportunities, income, and health indicators. It allows users, for example, to compare diabetes and obesity rates in north and south Dallas. It also shows things like how many grocery stores, corner stores and dollar stores are in a given ZIP code.

lack of access to healthy foods and the unhealthy food swamps tends to unevenly affect Dallas’ low-income Black and Hispanic communities more than whites living in more affluent areas.

Marc Jacobson, Regional Director of Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative, said that collecting and putting this data into one resource will hopefully show city and community leaders how the city is doing and where more health resources are needed.

“When you look at the incidence of disease, it’s interesting that different diseases have higher or lower incidences in different parts of the city,” Jacobson said. “You may have more seniors living in an area and seeing a higher concentration of diseases affecting them. You probably see overlap with obesity and areas that are food deserts.”

Jacobson said he hopes the map will be updated annually or every other year to show where or if progress has been made.

“We really want to allow for the community to dig in, see what they learn and connect that to their own experience,” Jacobson said. “There’s really not another resource out there that shows you how things like corner stores and disease might interrelate with each other.”

Other issues discussed at the summit included possible policy changes at the federal level that could impact how many area families are eligible to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, long-term economic challenges for the city’s communities of color and how the Dallas area’s hospital systems are engaging communities around them.

Donald Wesson, President of the Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Center at the Juanita J. Craft Center in south Dallas, said cooperative efforts around the city are what will best help alleviate health issues.

Wesson presented the work the Wellness Center has done the past eight years by partnering with Dallas’ Parks and Recreation Department and area churches to increase access to health care and nutrition education.

The center provides cooking classes, personalized nutrition and medical attention and opportunities for physical activity.

Among program participants, there’s been a 37 percent reduction in inpatient admissions and a 21 percent reduction in emergency room visits, Wesson said.

He added that he feels initiatives like this need more public support to show they can work.

“There’s always an opportunity to do more,” Wesson said. “We see the opportunity every day in the folks who come to see us. We would like to see the city not only improve the health of a community overall, but we would also like to have the city see [what happens] if you improve the management of diabetes, obesity and chronic kidney disease. Investing up front can reduce the costs of treating these down the line.”

Jenny Eyer, Children At Risk’s director of the Center for Child Health, said she hopes the message of needing to share resources stuck with attendees and that they will be open to work to seek out comprehensive and sustainable solutions.

“The whole point of this conversation was that hunger is not an isolated incident. A hungry individual is an unhealthy individual,” Eyer said. “Hospitals can be impacted by hungry adults. Hungry children can mean failing schools. We need to fix these issues long term.”

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and FWD>DFW had no influence on the content created.

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