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Program manager Emily Kelley, Helfman, and program associate Ambereen Aziz

Early one morning this summer, a group gathers at the cafeteria of the Ripley House Charter School in the Second Ward. There are two long rows of tables, filled with pounds and pounds of colorful produce—mangoes, red onions, summer and butternut squash, cabbage and cilantro, all trucked in from the Houston Food Bank. Coordinators in red shirts—the uniform of local non-profit Brighter Bites—sort volunteers, who get to work filling 300 paper bags with fruits and veggies, to be picked up by 150 parents when they fetch their kids from the school’s summer program later in the day.

Walter Pacheco is here with his wife and kids, who attend Lantrip Elementary nearby. He volunteers every week, on his days off. His family has been receiving free produce for several semesters, since Brighter Bites first implemented its program at Ripley. “My kids aren’t picky, they’ll eat pretty much anything,” he says, “and it’s about 50 dollars’ worth of produce every week. It helps a lot.”

Houstonian Lisa Helfman founded Brighter Bites in 2012, after signing up for a produce co-op and seeing the improvement in the diets—and tastes—of her two sons, Drew and Nathan. When her youngest, then 5 years old, chose blueberries over cake, she was astounded. And she knew she was onto something. “Their eating habits just started naturally changing by having this abundance of produce in the house,” she says. “I thought, if I can do this in my house, how do I do this in the inner city, where there’s a lack of access because of food deserts?”

To figure it out, Helfman forged partnerships with the Houston Food Bank and Dr. Shreela Sharma, a nutrition expert and epidemiology professor at UTHealth’s School of Public Health. Soon, a simple, but brilliant, idea took form: They would devise a replicable model for encouraging healthy eating among lower-income groups, tweaking it—and expanding, always expanding—along the way.

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Founder Lisa Helfman handing out produce at Johnson Elementary in northeast Houston

Brighter Bites launched its first project that same year, 2012, at just one Houston-area KIPP school. Since then, the young nonprofit has grown exponentially, with 90-plus sites including schools, YMCAs and churches in low-income neighborhoods in Houston, Austin and Dallas currently participating. How much produce has been delivered so far? Eight million pounds.

Key to the model: Produce comes to families, not the other way around. Locally, the Houston Food Bank distributes fruits and veggies to participating institutions, enough for each family to receive 30 to 35 pounds each week, with parents helping to distribute it during three eight-week sessions, in the fall, spring and summer. Brighter Bites, meanwhile, not only provides an accompanying health and nutrition program, but cooking instructions and a free sample of each week’s featured recipe. The morning we visited, the sample was Mango Tango Salsa, made with mangoes, cilantro, carrots and summer squash—all included, of course, in every bag distributed that day. “We’re giving them good food,” says Helfman, “and it’s kind of just naturally crowding out the bad.”

Sharma brings a scientific approach to the organization. “You build the best model when you question everything from the get-go, when you’re most critical from the outset,” she explains. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to scale up at warp speed.” In July, Preventive Medicine accepted an article by Sharma about how the program is working. Nearly all participating families, her study found, eat more fruits and vegetables during a given session, and many continue to do so after it ends. “We know we have a scalable model,” she says. “We know it’s cost-effective. We know it works.”

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Others are figuring that out, too. With help from the USDA, which last September gave Brighter Bites a grant of $2.4 million, the nonprofit is looking to expand into more cities in and outside Texas. Moreover, in addition to linking up with food banks here and elsewhere, Brighter Bites is extending its reach through high-powered partnerships with H-E-B and Sysco.

One reason for the program’s success, executive director Sam Newman believes, is that it allows parents to introduce new foods to their children without a financial risk. “I relate it back to how I see my own children eat, and only with familiarity will they become comfortable with it,” he says. “Thirty to 35 pounds a week is just a ton of produce, but what that translates to for a family of four is two extra servings per person per day. That couple of extra servings for free allows them to have that risk-free trial to put some food in front of their children and let them look at it, touch it, smell it. And maybe the tenth time they get it, they’re starting to eat these things.”

The extra produce has definitely upped Pacheco and his family’s intake of fruits and vegetables, he says, and on weeks when they have extra, he shares with his next-door neighbors, whom he describes as “very, very low income.” The Pachecos get excited to see each week’s haul, which often includes fruits and vegetables they’ve never tried: “Squash, and what are those things called—eggplants!—produce we would never pick up at the store,” he laughs. “We use the recipes, and my wife and I look up recipes on YouTube. We try new things, and the kids like it.”

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