What to Grow in the RGV’s Food Deserts? Community, Collaboration and Support

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago

Edited by Abigail Vela

A person thinking about making healthy food choices looking into the distance at two roads offering nothing but fast food choices.
Illustration by Deborah Cantu

If you’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley for any amount of time, you’re no stranger to the heaps of Dollar Generals and Family Dollar stores that line the streets of most of our communities. For many, these stores offer easy and convenient access to items that don’t necessarily warrant a trip to a large grocery store, like toilet paper or hand soap. However, for many families, particularly those living in rural areas of the RGV, these stores are the only places to shop for groceries within a reasonable distance. 

 

Large communities throughout the RGV are cut off from major grocery retailers like H-E-B, Sprouts, Walmart and Target. These areas are essentially food deserts with little to no access to fresh produce at an affordable price. The community members who reside in these areas have to grapple with the daily struggles of finding food to put on the table. 

 

The USDA categorizes an area as a food desert depending on the geographic classification. For an urban area to be considered a food desert, 33 percent of the population has to travel more than one mile to get to a large grocery store. In rural areas, 33 percent of the population has to travel 10 miles or more to get to a large grocery store. According to research conducted by Texas A&M University, more than half of the RGV is estimated to be a food desert. 

 

If you live in Sullivan, the nearest H-E-B is 12 miles away; that’s a 20-minute car ride or close to an hour on a bike, which is not a safe option given the lack of bike lanes or fully paved roads. Residents in Roma are 15 miles or 30 minutes from the nearest supermarket. Due to limited transportation and high gas prices, residents have to resort to the small grocery stores available, which often offer little produce at a much higher price. They also turn to the dollar stores, which carry an array of processed food and practically no fresh produce. 

Sentli Center tabling at a market in McAllen. Photo Courtesy of Sentli’s Instagram page.

Despite many challenges, several organizations aim to make fresh produce more accessible to the community. The Sentli Center for Regenerative Agriculture connects local farmers to the community by making their produce available for shipping and pick up at several locations throughout the McAllen-Edinburg area, Weslaco and San Benito. Sentli accepts EBT, lifting a barrier that often stops many families from shopping for local fresh produce at farmers’ markets or pulgas. 

“We’ve branched out to open it up to the community and increase the accessibility and availability of local food,” said Shakera Raygoza, executive director and co-founder of Sentli.

They also host several workshops, available to anyone in the community, designed to educate people on farming practices and provide them with the tools they need to get started. 

 

“I’m hoping more people will feel connected to the land and empowered to grow their food,” said Raygoza. “I’d like for them to take what we teach and put it into action in their own homes or their own farms because, in the end, the ideal is to have a lot of small farms feeding our community instead of bringing it in from outside sources.”

Some of Sentli’s crops on their urban farm. Photo courtesy of Shakera Raygoza.

If you have space, growing your own produce can be a way to increase access to healthy food for your family and neighbors. Know someone without access to transportation? Carpooling can help them get to a grocery store and help you build a connection with your community. Donating your time at food banks or even at Sentli Center can help people access fresh and healthy food that would otherwise be unavailable to them.   

 

Food deserts pose a serious risk to the health and well-being of the people living in them, and large grocery chains are unlikely to provide relief any time soon. It’s important to band together alongside community members to begin to see change and to give a helping hand.

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