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Hunger and obesity are twin problems in this Texas county: how one partnership hopes to tackle both

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The phrase “border town” might have you picturing some sleepy little town where there’s not much to talk about, and the days start to blend together. But the bustling streets of Hidalgo County, Texas, may be enough to change your mind. Nestled in the Rio Grande Valley, the county, home of the so-called “South Pole” of Texas, boasts a subtropical climate with mild winters and an abundance of parks and nature reserves. It’s a mother lode for trade and ecotourism—two things likely contributing to its booming population and an admirable unemployment rate under seven percent.

Despite being one of the most populous counties in Texas and one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, nearly 30 percent of Hidalgo’s population lives in poverty, and, according to the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), up to 146,000 people in the valley (which includes three other counties) experience food insecurity.  “Many people here are struggling to put food on the table, and they lack consistent access to nutritious foods and health education,” says Sandra Gonzalez, the food bank’s health and social services senior manager. As a result, their health pays the ultimate price. At one time the metro area of McAllen, Texas—the largest city in Hidalgo County—had the highest percentage of adults suffering from obesity in the country. 

The food bank has made it its mission to improve the lives of those living in the Rio Grande Valley through food assistance, nutrition education, and access to community services—things Gonzalez says “are necessary to make healthy, long-lasting changes.” To support these incredible efforts, Found (an evidenced-based weight care program), Instacart (an online grocery service), and Unite Us (a technology platform that connects people in need of social care to much-needed social services) have joined hands to help fight hunger and obesity in Hidalgo County.

Food insecurity and obesity: Battles of the Rio Grande Valley

Contrary to popular belief, food insecurity and obesity can and do coexist. It’s a phenomenon known as the hunger-obesity paradox. An overabundance of convenience stores and fast-food options, mixed with the uneven distribution of health-promoting resources (fully stocked grocery stores, affordable health care, and recreation areas encouraging physical activity), puts low-income populations at increased risk for obesity, chronic diseases, and other adverse health outcomes. In fact, one study examining the relationship between food insecurity and obesity found that the odds of having obesity were 32% higher for adults who lacked consistent access to safe and nutritious foods than those who were food secure. 

Where someone lives also plays a role in their food choices. “A lot of individuals within the counties we serve reside in rural areas that are food deserts or food swamps,” says Gonzalez. One research report showed that roughly 70% of the “grocery” stores in the Hidalgo area are convenience stores or gas stations. In areas with low supermarket access, healthy foods can be scarce and often carry a steep price tag—leading some to opt for lower-cost options. “Many families are going to purchase foods that are more affordable and not necessarily healthy,” says Myra Rodriguez, community engagement manager for Unite Us. Cheaper convenience foods are typically higher in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar, which can promote obesity if consumed frequently and in excess.

The scarcity of nutritious foods coupled with the absence of health education is a recipe for a health disaster. It may help to explain why one in three people have obesity in Hidalgo County, nearly 27% of adults in the county have diabetes (compared to the national average of 11.3%), and 32% are prediabetic. “Food insecurity creates a barrier to accessing healthy foods that individuals need to improve their health and manage chronic diseases,” says Rodriguez.

Experts agree that access to healthy and affordable foods, along with education that resonates with the people of Hidalgo—a county with a 92.5% Hispanic population—is crucial to tackling the health crisis in the Rio Grande Valley.  

Power of the Rio Grande Valley Food Bank

Serving more than 76,000 people weekly, the food bank is not only improving access through regular food distribution, it is empowering clients—many with chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes—to make healthy lifestyle changes. Through its bilingual nutrition education program, attendees learn about healthy food choices and get tips on budgeting, shopping, and cooking nutrient-dense meals for their families. 

“Having access to healthy foods and nutrition education has improved the health of many individuals who use the food bank,” Gonzalez says. One client, she notes, even managed to lose 80 pounds during the pandemic when regular food distribution was by delivery and education went virtual. 

Patty Canales from Pharr, Texas, credits the food bank nutrition education program with helping her manage her diabetes—taking her A1C from 14 to 6. “Always worrying about your numbers can make being a diabetic stressful,” says Canales. “I am very grateful for the education that the food bank provides.”

It’s not unusual for McAllen households to hold multiple generations. So, the education it provides isn’t limited to the person who attends an education class. “You are touching the lives of 6 to 10 individuals, or more,” says Rodriguez. Canales, who lives with her son, grandson, and cousin, takes what she learns and implements these changes at home. The ripple effect has helped her cousin shed more than 140 pounds. “He is a living testimonial that the food bank has helped us,” Canales says. 

But education is only one piece of the puzzle. To see lasting and sustainable changes in their health, this predominantly Hispanic population needs access to behavior guidance tailored to them, their culture, and their language—something that traditional health care doesn’t always offer. This is why Found is partnering with Instacart and Unite Us to supplement the food bank’s education offerings and food distribution with the Healthy Habits Program.

The Healthy Habits Program

Designed to improve access to nutritious foods along with education and guidance related to healthy habits, the three-month Healthy Habits Program kicked off on June 8 with a local community service event, “Found on the Ground.” The Food Bank of RGV, Found, and Unite Us commemorated the partnership by helping Gonzalez with food distribution and a nutrition education class. 

During the program, and with Found’s $20,000 donation, Instacart Fresh Funds will be distributed monthly to 60 Hidalgo County area residents living with diabetes or other comorbidities. People invited to the program have shown an interest in taking care of their health through their active participation in the food bank’s nutrition classes. In conjunction with their monthly food bank food distribution, “these funds can be used to buy foods on the Found Instacart store, which has been curated by Found nutrition experts,” says Sarah Romotsky, director of partnerships and registered dietitian at Found. A big perk? Instacart’s delivery feature can bring healthy foods straight to participants' doorsteps. “[This] expands access dramatically,” adds Romotsky.  

Alongside the monetary investment, Found is providing behavior change tips and education related to healthy eating, movement, and hydration. To help participants incorporate these behavior changes, they will receive weekly behavior guidance tips in Spanish. “And we’ll be checking in with them monthly to see how it’s helping them live  healthier lives,” Romotsky says. 

In addition to learning new ways to improve their health, participants like Patty Canales say they are looking forward to continuing momentum with habits they’ve already committed themselves to—such as physical activity. “I was the type of person who couldn’t walk 20 steps. Now, I can walk half a mile and stand for longer periods,” she says. “I’m looking forward to learning about hydration and how I can make drinking water more of a habit.” And with better access to food she enjoys—like egg white omelets with spinach, artichokes, and cheese—that support her healthy lifestyle changes, Canales can continue managing her diabetes. 

Big picture

“The goal of the partnership is not only to help members access healthier foods but also to provide them with education to establish healthy habits in their daily lives and pass them on to their families,” Romotsky explains. 

And according to the Found team, it doesn’t stop here. “The launch of the Healthy Habits Program in Hidalgo County, Texas, is just the beginning,” says Romotsky. Found hopes to model and replicate this program in various under-served communities nationwide. 

“If you ask me,” says Rodriguez. “There needs to be more programs like this in every food bank and in every pantry.”

About the writer, Morgan Pavon

Morgan Pavon, RD, is a registered dietitian and a former Found coach who writes about health and medicine at Found.

About Found

Found is among the largest medically-supported weight care clinics in the country, serving more than 200,000 members to date. To start your journey with Found, take our quiz.

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