Contributing Author: Francesca Tabor
Houston, TX organization Brighter Bites is helping communities in food swamps by empowering food-insecure families themselves to organize for a better food future. “They’re helping to be helped. All those touchpoints with the families create communities through fresh food,” says Brighter Bites co-founder Lisa Helfman.
In a partnership with dietician Shreela Sharma, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health, Helfman founded Brighter Bites after enrolling her family in a weekly produce co-op. The co-op brought about a change in her children’s cravings: instead of reaching for cake at birthday parties, they instead searched for fresh fruit. “If I can have this change in my house, how do I bring the same change to underserved communities that lack access to fresh produce?” says Helfman.
In the U.S., a number of factors like poor access to adequate produce limit the amount of fruit and vegetables children eat in many communities. Minority communities report low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption, and specifically, African American communities report the lowest rates nationwide.
Brighter Bites takes a hands-on approach to nutrition education, acknowledging that information alone will not change eating behaviors. “Everybody knows that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for you. But there are multiple reasons why they don’t actually do it,” says Sharma.
The organization aims to make the decision to eat fresh produce easier by equipping participating families with an average of 57 servings of fruits and vegetables at no cost each week—costing the program only US$2.65 per family, per week. The donation saves each family nearly US$35 each week. “Flooding the pantry is important—giving families sufficient and exciting fresh fruits and vegetables week after week so that you’re developing a taste for them,” says Sharma. Brighter Bites also trains schools in nutrition education programming and helps teachers devise lessons incorporating fresh produce, exposing children to saturated and hands-on nutrition information.
To sustain this model, Brighter Bites facilitates partnerships between growers, food banks, distributors, and schools to supply and house the food, while training the families to staff and carry on the program themselves. “We are not reinventing the wheel—it’s just about linking the system,” says Sharma. “That’s kind of our year zero: we spend a year ahead of [launching] working with food banks and our grower distributor partners.”
After growers, food banks, and distributors ship the food to schools, parents and families join together to bag and distribute the food and a handbook of recipes to other families. And Brighter Bites prepares creative meals using challenging or new ingredients from the bags so that families can sample their produce upon picking up their produce. “We demystify produce and make it accessible to them: we give it to them, but also they know how to use it,” says Helfman.
Researchers at the UTHealth School of Public Health found 94 percent of participating families reported eating all or most of the fruits provided, while 87 percent ate all or most of the vegetables provided. And using related data, Brighter Bites uses scorecards to give cities ratings that reflect the willingness of distributors, growers, and food banks to get involved—helping to plot further expansion and to help communities understand and talk about their local food systems.
“Brighter Bites is not the end-all and be-all solution to ending hunger and food insecurity. [We want to] change the conversation around food as it relates to health—we really want to be at the table as these conversations are happening,” says Sharma.
Photo courtesy of Brighter Bites.