A mural on a city wall depicts a closeup image of four smiling Black children.
A mural on a city wall depicts a closeup image of four smiling Black children.

2023 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

In Houston, Communities Are Coming Together to Make Healthy and Affordable Food Accessible

City and community growth should benefit everyone, not just a few. In Houston, partners are coming together to remove structural barriers so that as the city grows, everyone benefits. With its rising national prominence, Houston is one of the crown jewels of Texas. Because of its vibrant food, arts, and creative scenes, it has joined the ranks of the country’s most popular cities. It’s also a place where Black and Brown people are joining together to create community-led solutions to the challenges facing the sprawling city. 

Communities for Better Health and its partner organizations are working in the majority Black and Latino neighborhoods of Acres Homes, Sunnyside, Kashmere Gardens, and Trinity Gardens where— alongside residents— they collectively address food justice and insecurity. Communities for Better Health's partners include CAN DO Houston, the Acres Homes Community Advocacy Group, Ivy Leaf Farms, and the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council. Together, they lead the Community Health Equity Network, which is a collective effort of interconnected leaders, communities, and organizations striving to advance health equity. The collective is increasing access to nutritious foods in Houston’s historically Black and Latino neighborhoods. The partnership is focusing on systems and structural approaches that address root causes of food insecurity to promote lasting change in the city.

Partners in the Community Health Equity Network take an approach rooted in neighborhood responsiveness. This strategy has enabled the collective to develop solutions in partnership with residents that fit the distinct flavor of each neighborhood and prioritize the leadership of people with firsthand experience in the communities they’re serving. “People raised in our neighborhoods often get their education and go make somewhere else better,” shares Ivy Lawrence-Walls, head of Ivy Leaf Farms. “We are getting educated and bringing our knowledge back here to make our own communities better.” 

Small groups of people sitting at tables talking. Communities for Better Health and residents come together for a Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood Meeting at the Kashmere Multi Service Center Auditorium.
Six people standing and smiling in a corner store. Jasmine J. Opusunju, Sia Kadie Dauda, Adryn Maldonado, Ghia Johnson, and Kristin Bennett from the Healthy Corner Stores Initiative visit Rose Market owned by Babar Malik in the Acres Home neighborhood.
Two people buy healthy food from a vendor at a farmer's market. Fresh produce and meats are available to Kashmere and Trinity Gardens residents at the Northeast Farmers Market hosted by Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.

Food insecurity is a multifaceted issue that requires innovative approaches to overcome long histories of annexation of land, redlining, lack of zoning, and structural racism. Addressing the issue has required strong, cross-sector partnerships, which the Community Health Equity Network has honed. Innovation has become one of the collective’s greatest strengths and has led to working  in local neighborhoods to create a sustainable model built with people power that is transforming the city for the better. Through public and private partnerships, the Network is creating local jobs and enhancing small neighborhood businesses while meeting the community’s needs for healthy food, addressing food insecurity on multiple fronts. Its team is working with city officials to secure funding that supports place-based urban agricultural work; culturally relevant food access programming; and food production systems. In this critical work, the Network is actively engaging residents and fostering connections between communities and with local officials.

Healthy corner stores, farmer-founded grocery stores, urban agriculture education hubs, and farmers markets are human-centered solutions that the collective is implementing to address communities' limited access to nutritious food. Each program implemented directly reflects the areas served. Farmers markets in the Acres Homes, Kashmere Gardens, and Trinity Gardens neighborhoods include vendors of products grown or produced within 180 miles of Houston.

We know that our communities deserve better, and we are working to create a culture within our communities to make [equitable solutions] applicable for the places that they're going to be implemented in.

—Kristin Bennett, CEO, Communities for Better Health

A Black woman serves a meal to a customer seated at a table. Rea Griggs serves a customer at Kuji Kitchen, an "Island food and coffee" restaurant in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston.
An adult Black woman in a field teaches kids how to farm. Ivy Walls, co-founder of Ivy Leaf Farms, teaches kids from the Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston, the basics of farming during Volunteer Day.
Woman smiling as she talks to other people. Ghia Johnson from CAN DO Houston talks with community members at a Community Health Equity Network Meeting at the Sunnyside Multi Service Center.

The Healthy Corner Stores Program, the first of its kind in Houston, is utilizing existing infrastructure within the community to increase access to nutritious foods by working directly with corner store owners to provide nutritious food options. Fresh Houwse Grocery, a grocery store that Jeremy Peaches and Ivy Lawrence-Walls founded, was born out of a study revealing that lettuce bought in grocery stores in areas with lower incomes posed a higher risk of gastrointestinal parasites than those in more affluent communities. Lawrence-Walls says, “Our work is direct action instead of direct service. We are not waiting for our communities to be given what we need.”

Through advocacy, leadership development, nutrition education, cooking classes, civic engagement training, and "agripreneurship" (adopting new methods in agriculture for improved production/earnings), the Community Health Equity Network is building communities’ capacity to drive positive change from within.

This comprehensive approach is necessary to meet people’s needs as each neighborhood that the collective works in is dealing with compounding social needs—with more than 1 in 4 residents struggling to make ends meet. Kristin Bennett, chief operating officer of Communities for Better Health, notes, “We know that our communities deserve better, and we are working to create a culture within communities to make these solutions applicable for the places that they're going to be implemented in.”  

Partners in Houston understand the importance of honoring the histories of those communities and the necessity of collaboration with Black leaders who understand structural racism, the needs of their communities, how to really listen to community members, and how to collectively design culturally relevant solutions.

“Many of us have done impactful work with limited resources and yet we are still successful. We’re able to produce a set of programs that is yielding success in increasing access to affordable and healthy food,” shares Bennett. “We haven’t solved the whole problem, but we have put a dent in it.”

A woman and man sit on a bunch at a bus stop.

Removing Barriers

Culture of Health Prize winners, Detroit; Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation; and Houston, are removing barriers to create more equitable systems in their communities.
A smiling mother and daughter sit at a table in a room of people doing arts and crafts together.

RWJF Culture of Health Prize

The Prize celebrates communities where people and organizations are collaborating to build positive solutions to barriers that have created unequal opportunities for health and wellbeing.