Katherine Hall stuffed a ziplock bag full of mixed salad greens to sell at Fresh Express, a mobile produce store built into an old city bus.
“They’re all organic,” she said.
Fresh Express has been in the Valley for a couple years. It recently started making regular trips to Maryvale. The market on wheels now stops at Golden Gate Community and Health Center, which traces its roots back decades to barrios displaced by the expanision of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Latino women dressed in workout clothes left the Center and walked to their cars. Some looked curiously at the idling bus. But then kept moving. Finally, one came over and asked for a particular kind of squash. Hall offered her yellow and spaghetti squash. But the woman didn’t buy anything.
“We know that it’s about diving into the community and addressing what the community’s needs are,” said Monica Snyder, head of clinical operations for Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care.
The nonprofit is part of a coalition behind Fresh Express and other efforts to change Maryvale’s status as a so-called food desert, which experts define as a place with little or no access to healthy food.
“When we decided that we were going to provide community reinvestment dollars to fund these initiatives, we wanted it to be in a community that was ready to receive the help,” Snyder said. “And Maryvale is that community.”
More than 20 percent of Latino children and more than 40 percent of adults are obese, according to the State of Obesity. About 140,000 undocumented immigrants live in Phoenix, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the 1980s, a demographical shift transformed Maryvale into a predominantly Latino neighborhood with many newly arrived immigrants.
Latino immigrants enjoy good health when they first get to the United States. But over time and generations, they become prone to obesity.
“People that are willing and able to migrate tend to be just physically healthier, mentally healthier, to be able to withstand the rigors of a migration process,” said Dr. Sandra Albrecht, assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Latino immigrant health also depends on where people came from.
“Some of the countries tend to still have healthier dietary patterns and they have less than a sedentary lifestyle than the U.S.,” Albrecht said.
This changes over time, though.
“The longer an immigrant lives in the U.S., the greater the likelihood they (have) of becoming obese and just as obese as the U.S.-born,” Albrecht said.
But it doesn’t mean the United States causes immigrants to become obese, which is why Albrecht wants to study if there’s a link between assimilation and declining health. Or, if it can be traced back to where people came from.
“Because of things like the obesity epidemic in Mexico, and in many of these countries of origin, we’re seeing more and more that immigrants are losing their health advantage,” she said.
If obesity and assimilation are connected, Maryvale’s kids might be part of the solution. A class of third-graders at Pueblo del Sol Elementary School planted the seeds of another coalition-backed project to improve nutrition. They started a community garden.
“We go out everyday,” said teacher Sarah Isaac. “We check on the plants. Make sure they’re getting enough water. Adjust the drip system if we need to.”
The garden sprouted from a discussion about how Isaac’s students could make a difference.
“You can’t really teach empathy,” she said. “And I found that all my students are very empathetic. They’re very concerned about people around them, their community.”
All of Isaac’s students get either free or reduced lunch. Experts have long pointed to a connection between poverty and poor nutrition.
“They were very honest: ‘We don’t have a lot of vegetables at home and we don’t have a lot of fruits,’” Isaac said the kids told her.
The coalition has pitched in on the class project and started other community gardens in Maryvale. The key now is to keep the momentum going by educating and engaging residents, said Snyder with Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care.
“In the next six to eight months, we’re going to see changes in the way that folks are thinking about food,” she said. “Changes in the way that they’re thinking about fresh fruits and vegetables. And where to find them.”