Since its inception in 2013, Hearts and Hands Food Pantry, a ministry of Iglesia Cristo Viene, has remained one of the only “client choice” food pantries in the Baytown area. The client choice model means the food pantry is set up like a grocery store, and clients can freely choose items just as they would in a supermarket.
Clients can visit the pantry once per month. Upon arrival, a volunteer guides each client through the pantry as they choose which food items they would like to take. Most of the volunteers are from Iglesia Cristo Viene and many are also clients.
When it comes to encouraging clients to make healthy choices, director of ministry outreach services Nikki Rincon knows it is more than just encouraging clients to reach for an apple instead of a bag of chips.
“It’s all about education,” Rincon said. “Without education, we won’t see long-term improvement in health and wellness.”
Rincon is changing that, with the support of Be Well™ Baytown, a comprehensive community-based initiative of MD Anderson Cancer Center sponsored by ExxonMobil.
Hearts and Hands of Baytown is one of 16 organizations involved in Be Well Baytown. The goal of the initiative is to mobilize the Baytown community to promote wellness and stop cancer before it starts. The initiative focuses on the five target areas of diet, physical activity, preventive care, tobacco control and ultraviolet radiation exposure.
The United Way of Greater Baytown Area and Chambers County receives funding through the initiative, and a portion of this funding is used toward partnering with Hearts and Hands to increase access to fresh foods and vegetables through coordination of mobile food fairs and expansion of the number of “client choice” food pantries in Baytown.
“In addition to education, it (a healthy lifestyle) is all about having access,” Rincon said. “Mobile food fairs allow us to get out into different pockets of the community to serve people, especially those who may not have transportation. That’s a huge barrier.”
Since its involvement with Be Well Baytown began in August 2017, Hearts and Hands has been able to increase the number of mobile food fairs, growing from once a month to now hosting between two and four food fairs per month. In just one year, Hearts and Hands hosted 23 mobile food fairs, distributed more than 350,000 pounds of produce, and served more than 14,000 families. Anyone is welcome to obtain fresh produce from mobile food fairs.
“The Be Well Baytown initiative has brought organizations from across the community together in pursuit of the common goal of increasing health and wellness,” said Lori Rumfield, director of community impact at the United Way of Greater Baytown Area and Chambers County. “The programming that is taking place at Hearts and Hands of Baytown is a wonderful example of the initiative in action.”
In addition to increasing the amount of mobile food fairs and clients served, participating in Be Well Baytown has also enabled Rincon to provide health and wellness programming to her clients. The YMCA of Greater Houston is supported by Be Well Baytown and provides most of the programming, including free memberships to the Baytown Family YMCA. Programs available through Be Well Baytown include the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program, Healthy Weight and Your Child, walking clubs and after school youth sports at Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District schools.
Rincon is a former YMCA fitness instructor and has a passion for the YMCA mission and its health and wellness programming. In spring 2018, she began promoting the free YMCA memberships to her volunteers and clients. Twelve of them took advantage of the memberships, and now a group of 10 to 12 clients and volunteers regularly exercise at the YMCA together.
“I feel like my volunteers are ambassadors,” Rincon said. “When they are helping clients select food from the pantry, they can share information about healthy eating, and also spread the word about the programs available through the YMCA and other organizations participating in Be Well Baytown.”
In August 2018, Rincon invited the YMCA to the pantry to host an information session about the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program which provides individuals with an opportunity to work with a trained lifestyle coach and learn how to incorporate healthier eating, moderate physical activity, problem-solving and coping skills into their daily lives. Participation in the program also includes a free family membership to the YMCA for one year. Twenty-five clients and volunteers attended the session, and based on blood tests facilitated by Legacy Community Health, 15 people qualified to participate in the one-year program.
“What I love about Be Well Baytown is that it has expanded partnerships and collaborations among different resources and organizations in the city,” Rincon said. “It has helped our community work towards a common goal of improving health and wellness in our community.”
On Saturday, Nov. 3, MD Anderson and ExxonMobil will be hosting “Be Well Baytown Day” at Ross Sterling High School from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The event will celebrate the one-year anniversary of Be Well Baytown, and will include fitness demonstrations, vendor booths with health information, healthy snacks, children’s activities and free produce distribution from Hearts and Hands in collaboration with the Houston Food Bank. The event is free and open to the public. Please visit www.mdanderson.org/bewellbaytown for more information about Be Well Baytown.