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A Perspective on Healthy Food Access

July, 25 2019

Dr. Kelly Varga, Director of the Mobile Fresh Market Program, University of North Texas at Dallas

Why do social justice initiatives fail? How? Who is to blame? I believe the answer lies in the root challenge of authentic community engagement; without community buy in, there simply is no success.  

“Community-Minded, Community Forward.” 

This phrase is the driving force behind the work that UNT-Dallas aims to do in the Southern Dallas Sector. For the past three years, my role at the University of North Texas at Dallas (UNTD) has taken on many hats from urban ecology to career-readiness education and Biology Club Advisor. Yet, it was through the creation of the Mobile Fresh Market Project (official name to come) that I found a higher calling and a community-centered platform.  

Lacking healthy grocery stores, southern Dallas lays claim to over 20 known food-desert areas.  Food deserts are defined by the USDA as places that are lacking access and options for healthy produce, and farther than one mile from a person’s home when within an urban area. The perverse reality is that these same areas are inundated with unhealthy food options- fast food, liquor and convenience stores, gas stations, etc. - known collectively as food swamps.  

UNTD is located 13 miles south of downtown Dallas and has a galvanizing mission: 

“Empower Students, Transform Lives, and Strengthen Communities.”  

 Building on community members’ tremendous work to develop community gardens and farms, our team at UNTD developed the Mobile Fresh Market by converting a donated and retrofitted DART bus into a moving farmers market to address food insecurity by providing access to fresh, locally-sourced produce. The goal is to provide social mobility to these communities through wholesome living and education.  

This is not an easy or straightforward path. As this work presents many unforeseen and daunting challenges, collaboration within and outside of the university is vital to its success. Too often work in the non-profit space is done in silos and unfortunately, this is true in the Dallas area. However, there is great effort being made to slowly break down this barrier and Communities Foundation of Texas is one of those champions. By providing a “seat at the table,” nonprofit and community leaders alike can share their insights and strategize about not only how best to provide intervention but also how to measure its success.  

Though the workshop on June 6th, I was in awe of some of the truly amazing work that is being done around food insecurity. This meeting provided me a who’s who of potential partners and tools to identify target communities or areas of overlap. I believe the day revealed an urgency in need, but also urgency in collaboration. Why reinvent the wheel if one exists that is working?  

By providing a high-level agenda and smooth transitions between workshop segments, I took away more than I had hoped to. From “competing commitments” to “what’s eating you?” introductions, I was able to identify where there is need and where there are phenomenal resources. Furthermore, it provided the Mobile Market a place to thrive. Since some in that space did not know or fully understand the Mobile Market’s vision, this day generated interest and most importantly insight into best practices, something that any beginning initiative desperately needs.  

Here is where Communities Foundation of Texas got it right and rightfully so, as their name indicates. I truly hope that conversations like these continue across Dallas as there is much to be done, and above all, much already being done. Sometimes, a space to flesh out ideas or simply hear “I’ve been there, let me introduce you to..” can provide just the right amount of wind in any newbie’s sails. 

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On June 6, the W.W. Caruth Jr. Fund at Communities Foundation of Texas along with the State Fair of Texas hosted a convening of nonprofit organizations interested in addressing food insecurity in the Southern Sector of Dallas.

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