North Texas Commission Discusses Health, Hunger and Housing

By Tricia Sims | DFW Newsflash | May 2018

The North Texas Commission invited members ranging from higher education institutions, businesses and multiplicities to discuss the three factors that impact North Texas’ ability to succeed: health, housing and hunger.

“Today’s topic, health, housing and hunger, might sound like a fun alliteration but is a very serious problem here in North Texas,” James Spaniolo, president and CEO of North Texas Commission, said. “It is often said your zip code has a bigger impact on your health than your genetic code. A person’s access to health care, housing and healthy food is directly related to their ability to succeed in life.”

The luncheon had a panelist representing all three factors. Hunger was represented by Trisha Cunningham from the North Texas Food Bank, health was discussed by Dr. Ray Tsai from Children’s Health System of Texas, and housing was represented by Beth Van Duyne from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“These are really educational programs designed to help people think about how they can have a positive impact on their region,” Spaniolo said. “The more you look at our region with all the great growth and opportunities, you also realize the challenges that are reflected in the health, hunger and housing today.”

A main point discussed was the fact these factors are all connected.

“Which comes first, is it making sure they are not getting sick all the time or having a safe place to live? We always say it starts with housing, because that is what we do, but listening to all these panelist I know that none of these is without the other,” Van Duyne said.

Arlington Superintendent, Marcelo Cavazos, Ph.D, served as the moderator of the panelists’ discussion explained the decision to close school on an ice day is difficult when he thinks about the hunger, health and housing of his students.

“When I decide to not have school, a lot of people are happy, but there is a large number of people that school is there only meal throughout the day,” Cavazos said. “There is a large number where the heat in the building is the only quality heat they will have for the day. Their health and their wellness and their social and emotional learning in many cases is only at school. What weighs on my mind those days is all those kids who won’t have the luxury of safe and healthy day. That is a reality we live with not only in Arlington, but in all of North Texas.”

In North Texas, the opportunities may seem limitless, but 800,000 people in this area experience food insecurity, according to Spaniolo.

Cunningham says the North Texas Food Bank focuses on not only feeding the hungry, but teaching them what a healthy diet is.

“If you are living in food insecurity and you have fewer resources or you don’t know where your next meal will come from, you tend to buy the cheaper less healthy food and that really correlates back to the health issue,” Cunningham said.

“We understand the correlation between nutrition and health,” Cunningham said. “If people come to us with health problems, then we can tell them what a healthy diet is and tell them what they should eat to stay healthy.”

There is a booming housing market here in North Texas, but the lack of affordable housing means the American Dream of owning a home is further out of reach. Van Duyne said the average cost of a home right now in this area is $312,000.

“Money spent on a mortgage is money not spent on healthcare, that is money you are not able to spend on food,” Van Duyne said. “One of the goals for us is to not look at success as the amount of public housing, but we need to judge our success on those who we get out.

“When you see the faces of those in public housing, your son’s 3rd grade teacher or the nurse who helps your grandpa, then you understand the need to insure all levels of our community have place they can afford to live.”

All three panelists agreed there are possible ways to help improve these issues.

Cunningham asked people to donate their time, donate their money, and donate their voice

“There is so much that can been done,” Cunningham said. “One way to help is from an advocacy stand point, that is something really important to us. Donate your voice. There is a lot of legislation we could use your voice on.”

Van Duyne said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to work on community involvement to help.

“One of the focuses the secretary has is a vision center,” Van Duyne said. “We could tie all these departments together, like labor and small businesses with the local community partnerships and getting the city involved.”

Tsai believes the community needs to make sure they are doing all they can for the next generation.

“A lot of the social permanents of health start at a young age and have a lifelong and generation long effect,” Tsai said. “If we don’t start when they are young, it becomes harder and harder to invest. As a child, good schools, access to fresh fruits and vegetables that provide nutrition, that is pennies on a dollar compared to what it is going to cost later down the road. We need to make sure they are on a level playing field and they can all reach their potential.”