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Grass Roots

By Lee Erica Elder

Innovative Food Education Programs Empower Communities to Take Nutrition Into Their Own Hands

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This vibrant mural by Max Bode helps children understand the stages of composting, which they can also witness firsthand on the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm.

When nutritionist and chef Gina Keatley, founder of Nourishing NYC, lived in East Harlem while attending New York University, she was shaken by the grave income disparities between her neighborhood and those just a few miles further downtown. East Harlem has some of the highest rates of hunger and obesity in the city, and according to the U.S. Census, 34% of residents claim disability (the national average is 19%). “Seeing men and women in their early 30s and even younger, missing limbs or living their lives in wheelchairs or with walkers, I realized quickly that their mobility and health issues were directly related to complications from diabetes and obesity,” Keatley says. “Living in a food desert, it seemed obvious: poverty was directly linked to the ability to access healthy and nutritious sources of foods. I immediately knew that I had to do something to address the direct correlation between health and low-income status.” The immediacy was intensely personal; Keatley experienced poverty and homelessness as a child. Nourishing NYC’s Urban Produce Program distributes thousands of pounds of fresh produce annually to New York City residents, and provides community education through its junior chef program and nutrition classes. “Through Nourishing NYC’s nutrition, health, and anti-hunger advocacy programs, we begin to approach people on a human level, where we are learning and growing together to strengthen families and communities,” Keatley says. “Giving people the tools to make their own healthy foods at home, showing them through demos and cooking classes, as well as letting them taste and smell the ingredients as they interact with one another, works wonders.” Keatley has been honored as a CNN Hero and a L’Oréal Paris Woman of Worth, but perhaps some of her most rewarding acknowledgements are the junior chefs who look up to her, like 13-year-old Hinda Diakite. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says, of the weekend cooking classes, community service projects, and especially a Thanksgiving meal workshop. “I plan to continue working with Nourishing NYC. Community food education programs are important, because they educate people on the right things to eat and how to live a happy and healthy lifestyle. My goals are to get into Food and Finance High School, and then attend culinary school. I hope to open my own restaurant or bakery one day.” Nourishing NYC recently launched Nourishing USA, creating Anti-Hunger Advocacy Kits for people around the country who want to start their own self-sustaining community gardens and initiatives.

Targeting preparation of the family meal, many programs encourage the integration of healthy cooking skills into existing traditions. Just Food, a New York City-based organization, which has supported community-sustained agriculture programs, community-run farmers’ markets, and farm-to-food pantry programs since 1995,

began community food education programs to close the gap between access to local and organic food, and consumption. “Research shows that it’s not just an issue of access—access doesn’t mean you are going to make the right choices,” says Angela Davis, Just Food community food education program coordinator. To address these needs, the organization works within the local framework to create a space for engagement, training community chefs and gardeners to conduct workshops and demonstrations in their communities. “Our goal is to see what is already happening in the community and providing the training to amplify what they’re already doing,” says Davis. “It’s about planting a seed with people, getting them used to things they hadn’t heard of before or cooking things in a different way.” The task of encouraging lifestyle changes is a marathon, not a sprint, and community chefs are tasked with keeping people interested in preparing their own food on a regular basis. “Many people see cooking as a burden,” says Davis. “We compete against fast food and things like the 99 cents menu, which are cheap and don’t require any effort. To be healthy, to eat well and deal with issues of chronic diseases and take charge of your own health, doesn’t mean every meal has to be from scratch, but the majority should, because you can’t control what’s in your food when eating out. Our trainers pick ingredients that are affordable, which is definitely a challenge. We always have a recipe that they can try at home.” Participants enjoy the innovative demonstrations (a popular session teaches moms to make their own baby food) and the community chefs have even developed their own followings.

Loss of control over meal preparation can be devastating for those living in shelters. To address this need, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Homeless Health Initiative (HHI) implemented a nutrition education and fitness promotion program supported by hundreds of volunteers, including doctors, nurses, and social workers, at three local shelters. Operation CHOICES is now in its third year of operation. “When we conducted focus groups with moms, they shared very strong emotions around food,” says Social Work Trainer Melissa Berrios. “They can no longer provide nourishment for their children—the love that moms pour into preparing a meal for their family, knowing exactly what their children like and don’t like to eat, delighting in the smiles and satisfaction on their faces when full from mama’s specialty.”

Weekly Operation CHOICES sessions with moms include fitness activities and interactive nutrition education, including lessons on basic food groups, nutrition labels, serving sizes, vitamins, minerals, and health consequences of obesity. The children’s nutrition curriculum covers creating healthy, balanced plates and the importance of fruits and vegetables. “It is important that we don’t label foods as good vs. bad—instead, we discuss how to make healthier choices and the importance of eating certain foods in moderation,” says Berrios. “We recognize that our families have limited resources and we don’t want them to feel like failures because they can’t easily access or afford fresh, organic produce on their way to the shelter from school. We want them to experience the power of successfully picking out snacks from the corner store that have less sugar or salt than what they may have chosen before. One mom shared with us that her son is now cutting off the fat on his meat at dinner in the shelter. One of our shelter partners offers a food tasting to families before deciding to add the new item to the menu.”

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The Chinese American Planning Council's Youth Green Team receives hands-on learning experiences at the Brooklyn Grange to accomopany their studies on urban agriculture.

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