Houston is known for its amazing culinary history and never-ending list of mouth-watering food and delicacies. But there is another side to the city’s food spectrum. With so many options to choose from, it makes it quite difficult to eat healthy especially in the communities impacted by the challenges of food insecurity. Communities with limited options for healthy food access face challenges purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables because of low income, high costs of produce, poverty, and lack of time and resources for meal preparation. Oftentimes, many low-income and food-insecure households rely on fast food because consumers can get a lot of food for a low price.
Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) launched a new plan to address the issue. PVAMU’s Healthy Houston Initiative (a joint effort of the university’s colleges of Agriculture and Human Sciences, Nursing, Juvenile and Business) recently revealed its new mobile kitchen unit that travels around selected communities to address health disparities and promote a holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle.
The Defender spoke with Nkemdilim Anyasinti, the program coordinator of PVAMU’s Healthy Houston Initiative, to discuss what it provides to the city and its impact on families.
Defender: What was the idea behind launching this Mobile Kitchen?
Anyasinti: Healthy Houston, we’re an initiative that started underneath the cooperative extension program at Prairie View. The cooperative extension has been serving the limited resource communities in Harris County since 1970s. We’re big on nutrition education, addressing the food insecurities, the health disparities that are associated with not having access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Something that we do as a unit is our nutrition education and live food demonstrations. We partner with a lot of the schools, community centers, churches, anywhere we can go to implement it. With the mobile kitchen unit we can meet residents where they’re at. We’ll bring a kitchen to the streets.
Defender: Where does this initiative get its healthy food options?
Anyasinti: We rely on grocery stores, like HEB and Kroger’s, but we are an advocate for farmer’s markets. We want to also encourage agricultural literacy and food production literacy and that’s through our community garden programming. These communities may not necessarily have the access to fresh fruits and vegetables and so that’s something we want to help with already established organizations in the community. For example, in one of the communities that we serve they have a fresh produce market collaboration with local gas stations. If we can just be a resource for aid to spreading that information to the community, then that’s what we’re here to do. More specifically for our classes, we can go to the local farmer’s market. We can go to an HEB or a Kroger’s and that’s where we use it, primarily get our foods to distribute the education classes.
Defender: Give us an example or an overview of what the mobile kitchen looks like.
Anyasinti: It’s an eight-by-24-foot trailer. It’s fully wrapped in the Prairie View, Healthy Houston purple, and gold logos on the outside. And then on the inside, we have an industrial size refrigerator. We have stainless steel countertops, three sinks, a convection oven and a gas stove, as well. We have a deep freezer in there. It’s the size of a restaurant kitchen, all compacted into a trailer truck.
Defender: Does the mobile kitchen go to specific target areas in the community and how often?
Anyasinti: When we’re invited by community partners. Say an organization is having a farmer’s market and they want us to come out. We’ll come out and we can bring our mobile kitchen unit. We can give samples off of the unit. We can give different healthy tips and tricks, as well, and healthy habits. Or if we are having any event per se, then we’ll bring the mobile kitchen unit out for our event. So if we’re partnering with a school and we’re doing nutrition education classes, but to further the nutrition education class, we want to bring the mobile kitchen out. So that way they can see us do a live cooking demonstration. If it’s requested, the mobile kitchen will come out.
Defender: Public safety is also another important focus. How has the pandemic impacted your approach in serving these communities?
Anyasinti: Everyone had to make changes during the pandemic and the way that you deliver your programming but we’ve been able to keep going full steam ahead. We’ve transitioned into online and virtual classes, so we do a lot of in-person programming, but in order to follow COVID protocols, if the site would like us to do the programming virtually, we can do that. I think that’s one thing that the pandemic has shown us is that we don’t have to stop in a pandemic. People still need nutrition education; people still need to know where they can go to find fresh fruits and vegetables. Or they still need to have leadership and mental health first aid training. Just having that alternative option to continue programming on a virtual platform, I think that’s been probably the biggest thing that the pandemic has shown us.
Defender: What is the responsibility of the community to tackle this issue?
Anyasinti: Providing resources. For example, when you’re saying, getting fresh fruits and vegetables, we can implement that through community gardens. And so the community can assist with community gardens by helping with the sustainability of it. We can get it started, get it running, by having volunteers that want to come out and help us plan or help us harvest once the fruits and vegetables are done, that’s something that I can see is encouraging is when we start a community garden, now you have somewhere right in your community where you can go and get the fruits and vegetables. It’s just, helping with the sustainability of it.
Defender: What programs have you hosted thus far and what was the impact?
Anyasinti: I’ll say all of our programs are important in their own way. We just wrapped up a nutrition education class at a community center it’s called ‘ CHFFF’, which is Choose Healthy Food Fun and fitness. The goal of that class is to help prevent childhood diabetes. We had a group of kids that participated in that curriculum for eight weeks. And each week they were learning something new, how to cut sugar out of my diet, introducing whole grains to their diet, food safety, and kitchen Safety, So at the end, we wrapped it up with a food challenge. All the students were given the same exact ingredients and they had to make a unique dish. It’s gratifying to see students excited to tell us about them eating green beans because of what they learned in class. We have a course called “Live Well, Eat Well: Stay active with diabetes.” It’s diabetes management for adults. It’s exciting to hear them come back and say, I didn’t know that, you know, I didn’t have to completely cut this out of my diet. I can just modify it. Or they’ll bring different alternatives for sugar.
Defender: Do you guys have any events or projects coming up?
Anyasinti: So in October we will have three programs coming up. The first one is October 2nd, we’re doing a girl’s dance camp. There were statistics that showed after the age of 13, girls become less active when it comes to staying active. And so the dance camp, for girls grades six to 10. There’ll be having a day camp on PV’s main campus. They’re going to be able to collaborate with the Black Boxes, which is a huge dance team at PV. And then we’re also having a women’s health expo to talk about the health topics that relate to women. It’s going to be on October 9th, that’s going to be virtual. And then the last one that we have on October 20th and that is going to be the “Lead-HERship” program for girls grades eight to 12. They will discuss health, nutrition and just being an overall leader.