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Local Farmers Markets Help Reduce Obesity Rates

Farmers markets are in full swing around New Mexico.  That’s good news for families with school-aged children. Childhood obesity rates are declining a bit across the state and around the nation.  What might be playing a role in the decrease?  We visited a northern New Mexico market to find out.

Business is bustling at the Española Farmers Market.

Laurie Baldonado and her 14-year-old son Zachary are buying green tomatoes, squash, or calabacitas, lettuce and onion for salads from the vendors' harvests.  They get prescription vouchers at El Centro Family Health clinic that they can only use for fresh fruits and vegetables at the market.

In New Mexico more than 13-percent of high school students are obese.  So far, Zach has lost 10 lbs.

"Yeah I think the program has helped a lot,” Baldonado said.  “This isn't our first year, we did it last year as well, so instead of eating out a lot we prepare food at home and we eat fresh vegetables more often than what we did before."

The best part of this prescription diet plan, according to Baldonado, is that Zach has started trading fast food for fresh produce.

"Instead of eating canned goods or just canned fruit that has sugar and stuff, he'll eat the fresh stuff here,” Baldonado said.  “He'll eat that instead of even getting candy or any kind of boxed little cakes or whatever, he'll choose to eat a peach or an apple when they're in season, so I think it's helped a lot."

Zach flashes a bright smile and nods in agreement with his mom, a sack of tomatoes in his hand.

"So you like the program, you think it's a good idea?” a reporter asked.  “Yeah, it's a really good idea."

Recent data released by the Department of Health show half a million New Mexicans are obese. That's a quarter of the state's population.   The goal of the voucher program is to get children into healthy eating habits before they grow up.

“This is an example of a program that reduces the stress in our patients.”

Tana Beverwyk-Abouda is the associate health program director at El Centro Family Health, which partnered with the state Farmers Marketing Association to launch the voucher program three years ago.

“It’s giving them the tools that they need to actually make that behavior change,” Beverwyk-Abouda said.

The Española market is one of 66 across the state represented by the Farmers Marketing Association. Part of its budget, about $10,000 from state lawmakers this year goes towards the voucher program. 

Denise Miller, Association executive director, said there’s a huge epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this state and across the country.  “And particularly in Hispanic and Native American communities the rates are even higher,” she added.  “So anything that we collectively as a society can do to encourage healthy eating is really valued by everyone.”

The vouchers are worth about  $35 a week for a family of five, and Miller said although there are only 40 families participating in the program, it’s been a big hit with them.

“Rather than giving a large number of people a small amount of money, this gave a smaller number of people more vouchers and the purpose was really to build the habit of them going to farmers markets,” Miller said.

The voucher program is in its infancy, and farmers markets are collecting data on its effects.  Director Miller plans to ask state lawmakers and private foundations for additional funding so that more families can participate next year.

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