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When the school cafeteria is the only option for a healthy meal

DALLAS — They might sound a little morbid, but these numbers prove an
important point about North Texas.

On average, Collin County residents live 82 years.

Just 25 miles to the south, in the 75216 ZIP code, people
live an average of 70 years.

The American Heart Association says food insecurity is a driving force behind that startling discrepancy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

“Growing up, there were no healthy options,” said Unesha Wells, who was born in 75216 and raised there by her grandparents. “Your healthiest
option was probably going to be your school cafeteria.”

“Not even a Subway. Not even a Subway in this
neighborhood,” she said.

Well’s grandmother died several years ago. But Raymond Cunningham, her 79-year-old grandfather, still lives in the same home she grew up in
on South Denley Drive.

“You can see they still have my high school pictures up,”
she said as she pointed to two faded photographs hanging on the wall. 

She’s wearing
a formal dress in one framed picture and in the other a red graduation gown.

Wells was the first in her family to graduate high school.
Her college graduation was another milestone for her family. 

Unesha and grandfather Ray Cunningham

Unesha Wells and her grandfather on the front porch of her childhood home.


Sitting on her grandfather’s front porch, “my spot” as she calls it, she now has an adult’s perspective of the countless obstacles she and her family and friends faced trying to live a healthy life in their neighborhood.

“Everybody wants a Whole Foods or an Eatzi’s or something
like that,” she said. “In this neighborhood, you’re not going to find that.”

Wells always relied on a Dallas Area Rapid Transit bus to get to
and from school. To get to the store, she either rode a bus or walked and carried
her groceries home.

The same thing is still happening in 75216. 

And when it comes to restaurants, there are choices,
but few are healthy.

is definitely a food desert,” she said. “You’re going to get fried foods, barbecue. Anything
that would be considered fresh, it’s not going to be in 75216 or anywhere near

“Even access to parks and nice walking trails is hard,” she

Well’s grandfather had a fresh garden in their backyard
so eating vegetables was a given when she was growing up. 

“I think I made worse choices as an adult than I did as a
kid,” she said with a laugh. “We had squash and okra, but I know it was not the
same for all the other houses on this street.”

“Were we the only house on this street with a garden?” she
asked her grandfather. 

He shook his head yes. 

Food desert

Food desert


A former teacher and current community volunteer in 75216, Wells is frustrated that a ZIP code determines wealth and health.

“There definitely is and has been a class system between the
haves and have nots,” she said. “But to be honest, my grandparents instilled so
much value in me that I was about 15 or 16 years old when I realized I was a have
not because the things we valued were not material.”

She said she learned to work hard, respect herself and
others, and value people and relationships.

“I want to get back to that,” she said.

Wells works with For Oak Cliff, a nonprofit organization
focused on education, advocacy and community building in 75216.

For Oak Cliff is one of the agencies the American Heart
Association is partnering with to increase food options and help people
understand how to make healthier choices inside the ZIP code. 

Together, with several other community organizations, they are hosting mobile markets, providing healthy dinners for kids after school and trying to lure a new grocery store to the area.

“We’re gonna do the work in 75216,” Wells said. “We’re
gonna let our work speak for itself.” 

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