BANK ON IT: Food Bank For New York City's Blog
By Stephanie Alvarado
As a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) nutritionist, I travel through the South Bronx to teach workshops and I've noticed urban gardens popping up all over. Many of the old abandoned lots that once lined the South Bronx are now being converted to beautiful green lush gardens. They're showing up on rooftops too. Access to fresh, affordable produce is one of the biggest issues in areas like the Bronx and urban gardening is a perfect solution.
Other than seeing these small gardens and driving past farms when I travel outside of the city, I have never experienced life on an actual farm or observed one close up. That all changed a few weeks ago when the JSY team took a trip upstate to Stoneledge Farm in South Cairo, New York. Just Food, an organization that supports community-led efforts to increase access to locally-grown food in underserved New York City neighborhoods, hosted the trip so that clients and staff from four Food Bank For New York City member food pantries in the South Bronx could see where the produce they receive comes from.
In my work, I inform clients on how to use unfamiliar produce through recipe demonstrations and interactive discussions. It was a privilege to share this experience with them. One of the farmers gave us a guided tour of the farm. We saw basil, summer squash, cabbage and cilantro. We even picked beautiful, colorful flowers to take home.
While it is the norm for me to be surrounded by buildings and noise, spending time on the farm made me feel different in my soul. Just breathing the clean air and absorbing the breathtaking landscape was an awesome experience that I truly appreciated. As I pulled a bunch of cilantro from the soil, one of the seniors in the group walked over to me and said, "No, you have to get it from the bottom and really pull those roots out. If not, they won't last too long." In that moment I was reminded of my grandmother, who did the same thing for years in her own garden: pulling cilantro from the soil and using it to season her delicious red kidney beans. No "adobo" or "sazon" for my abuela!
It was a wonderful day all around. Getting to experience a farm firsthand has further instilled in me the desire to educate low-income New Yorkers about the importance of eating local produce and of supporting urban farms in the Bronx.
Stephanie Alvarado is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Shanon Morris
It's growing season again, which means that carts full of fruits and vegetables are on every other corner and farmers markets are filled with city folks looking to buy local. As Associate Director of Community Nutrition, I work on nutrition programming for Food Bank's network, but also provide nutrition education to the Harlem residents at our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry. One of my favorite activities is going on farmers market walks with our clients. We gather at the Community Kitchen at 116th Street and walk to 125th Street. During that time we chat about life and I get the chance to stay connected with the community in which I live and serve.
Once at the market, we watch a cooking demonstration by Stellar Farmers Market nutritionists, who use Food Bank's Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables recipes to show people how to turn local produce into tasty and healthy dishes. As the cooking demo ends, the moment our clients have been waiting for arrives: I give out Health Bucks to everyone who attended. Health Bucks are $2 vouchers provided by the Department of Health to help increase access to local produce. They can be used at all New York City farmers markets. With Health Bucks in hand, our clients and I walk around the market looking at the day's offerings, and they buy fresh fruits and vegetables to take home. Afterward, we walk back to the Community Kitchen together.
I've been leading farmers market tours for three years and have been joined by many of the same clients on every walk. They start asking me about it well before growing season arrives. Clearly, it's become a tradition. I hope that our talks, the cooking demonstrations, and the produce they're able to buy have helped influence healthy behavior changes in their lives. Just as we strive to build healthy relationships with people, it's important to also strive for healthy relationships with food!
To find a farmers market in New York City, visit www.nyc.gov/health/farmersmarkets.
Shanon Morris, RD, CDN is Associate Director of Community Nutrition at Food Bank For New York City.
By Marlo Dublin
Summertime signals the start of barbecue season and, for many, an increase in meat consumption. Grilled hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken typically take the spotlight, leaving vegetables in the dust. Is it possible for vegetables to play a larger role in our summer meals? Absolutely!
Incorporating vegetables and meat substitutes, like tofu and tempeh, in place of traditional meats can be better for our health and wallet. While full of protein, meat tends to be high in calories, cholesterol and saturated fat which, in large amounts, can be harmful to our heart health over time. Processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausages, usually contain preservatives, additives and extra salt which are unhealthy if consumed in excess.
Research shows that meat prices, particularly those for beef, are on the rise; if we can learn how to be creative with vegetables instead, we will save money at the supermarket and on future health care costs. Most vegetables are fat-free and low in calories. They provide a variety of vitamins and minerals, in addition to fiber, which is helpful for digestion, maintaining healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and keeping us feeling full and energized.
Here are some suggestions for easy meatless dishes that can be prepared on the grill:
1) Grilled eggplant or zucchini steaks can serve as a lighter and tasty substitute for traditional beef steaks. Simply wash and then cut either vegetable into one-inch-thick ovals, brush each side with olive oil, season with salt and pepper or dried spices, and grill for 2-3 minutes on each side or until they are tender.
2) Take a break from classic beef burgers by making fresh vegetable burgers. Mash two cups of your favorite cooked bean, such as garbanzo or black, and combine it with one stalk of chopped celery, one grated carrot and ¼ of a small chopped onion. Add ¼ cup whole wheat flour to the mixture, along with salt, pepper and other seasonings, and combine until the ingredients can be formed into six flat patties. Brush the burgers with a light coating of olive oil, place them on a lightly oiled sheet of tin foil and grill them for about 8 minutes on each side. Serve the burgers on a whole grain roll with your favorite trimmings, or serve them breadless along with a tomato sauce or gravy and your favorite salad.
3) Vegetable pizza, quesadillas, peppers or tomatoes, and mushrooms are other tasty alternatives to traditional barbecued meats and can all be grilled.
Marlo Dublin is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Peer Deutsch
Being on the frontlines of the war on poverty in New York City is tough. It's really hard to see the elderly, who should be enjoying their golden years, coming to a food pantry for something to eat. It's painful to watch a mother standing on line with her child to get food to take home. What goes through my mind as we serve so many people each week is how much I wish we had milk and eggs for the kids. How I wish we had more protein for the seniors. How I wish we had some chicken and fish for families to bring home. But we do what we can and hope that each effort we make and every service we offer, such as free tax assistance, help accessing SNAP, clothing drives and free school supplies, helps alleviate New Yorkers' burden a little more.
We accept only kosher food donations, which limits the food items we have available. It's sometimes a fraction of the donations other agencies may get. Yet, we do not limit our clientele to people who keep kosher. Everyone is welcome to receive assistance from us--and we wouldn't have it any other way. But we struggle, improvise and do everything humanly possible to put together a respectable pantry box each week.
As we approached Passover we started worrying, as we do each year. How would we possibly help impoverished, kosher-eating families during the holiday season when they can't really substitute peanut butter for a chicken, or a can of tuna for eggs and fish? Food Bank For New York City provided the answer, and it was the single most moving experience I have had in 19 years of serving the public.
Food Bank helped our agency access kosher foods that would serve our clients best. Dr. Camesha Grant and her member services team were tireless and vigilant in getting us foods that have never been accessible to us before. And I mean tireless! I once called Dr. Grant in the evening to leave her a message and she picked up! Each hurdle they encountered was seen as a challenge, not a roadblock. I am so excited to be able to offer substantial food items to our clients for the holidays. But mostly I am excited to know that there is a wonderful current of goodwill and real concern at Food Bank. In every department, someone is always there to help. We have a very capable partner to back us up in this war on poverty.
So to President and CEO Margarette Purvis, Dr. Grant, Renee, Pat, Elizabeth, Angela, Carol, Alyssa, every staff member, every single person filling warehouse orders, every smiling, cheerful truck driver who shows up in freezing temperatures--to all of you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your dedicated work. May God bless you and keep you safe.
Peer Deutsch is Food Program Coordinator at Oneg Shabbos, a member of Food Bank's network of charities.
by Marlo Dublin
Too often brown rice gets a bad rap. This healthy staple is tasty and nutritious, but it's one item that I've noticed is slow to move from food pantry shelves. Since March is National Nutrition Month, here's a primer on the perfect side dish.
"Are brown and white rice the same?"
The 411: Brown rice is considered a whole cereal grain, and is harvested from a type of grass. During harvest, its husk is removed, leaving it with a complete structure that includes a germ, bran and endosperm. When these structures are removed during processing, the result is white rice.
"Is brown rice really healthier than white rice?"
The 411: Yes! Brown rice is a 100% whole grain and packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals, including fiber, protein and iron. Whole grains can help reduce your risk for heart disease, certain cancers, and help in weight maintenance. Brown rice is also low in fat, calories and sodium, and is gluten, trans-fat and cholesterol free.
"I don't have time to cook brown rice; it takes forever, and comes out mushy or too hard!"
The 411: Water and timing affect the texture of cooked brown rice. It will likely come out mushy if you cook it in too much water for too long, or too hard if you don't cook it in enough water for enough time. Use these easy cooking methods, both of which serve 3-4 people, for the best results:
Bring 2½ cups water to a boil and stir in 1 cup of brown rice. Then, cover your pan and reduce heat to simmer rice for about 40 minutes. When most of the water has been absorbed by rice, turn the heat off and finish steam cooking rice in the pot with the lid on. In 5-10 minutes, the rice will be cooked and fluffy when stirred.
1100 Watt microwave:
Combine 1 cup of brown rice and 3 cups of water in a 2½-quart microwave-safe dish. Microwave uncovered on high heat for 10 minutes. Reduce power to 50% and continue microwaving rice uncovered for 20 minutes. Allow rice to sit for 5 minutes; fluff with a fork and serve.
"Brown rice is expensive!"
The 411: Research shows that a two-pound bag of long grain white rice can cost $2.69, while the same size bag of long grain brown rice can cost $2.79. For ten cents more, opting to buy brown rice can improve the nutritional quality of our meals.
"My family doesn't like brown rice. They say it tastes funny."
The 411: Combine cooked brown rice with white rice as a way to get used to its wholesome and nutty texture. Over time, add more brown rice in place of the white rice until you are eating it on its own! Or, stir in a splash of coconut milk towards the end of the cooking time to add a tropical flavor to the rice.
Marlo Dublin is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Stephanie Alvarado
One day more than seven years ago, just before I began studying to become a nutritionist, a former co-worker excitedly offered me some carrots from her local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). In simple terms, a CSA enables people in urban areas to buy a "share" of produce grown by local farmers. I thought her enthusiasm was a little strange. "A carrot is a carrot," I told her. "Who cares if it's from a CSA?" Eager for me to try them she said, "No! It is so not the same, Stephanie." When I saw the bunch of carrots I said "Ew, what a mess. All that green stuff sticking out of it." In my experience, carrots were always cute, bright, orange baby carrots in a bag. When I learned that this is how carrots actually looked when picked from the ground I was surprised. That is not how you find carrots in our hometown of the Bronx.
I wondered where she'd bought her produce, since there surely weren't any farms in our neighborhood. I realized that if I wanted to study nutrition, I'd have a lot to learn. I didn't even know what real produce looked like, much less how it benefits the body. I needed a better connection with food, and thinking about that began to bring up some childhood memories.
Sunday dinners at my grandmother's house were memorable not only because the food was delicious, but also because it was a bonding experience--with both family and food. My grandmother prepared her meals attentively. She understood the ingredients she was using and instinctively knew how to cook them. She connected with food. My grandmother grew up in small mountain town in Puerto Rico, and she cooked with produce and herbs grown in her own backyard and locally in town. She brought this relationship with food to the United States in the 1940s and maintained the traditions because it was all she knew.
My relationship with food was the exact opposite. A product of my environment, food translated to value menus, drive-thrus or anything quick and cheap. There was a clear disconnect. Reminiscing about those Sunday dinners made me realize that I was missing out. So I slowly began to try different fruits, vegetables and herbs at farmers' markets, and I've become more comfortable using them. I've learned to bond with food--literally. Slowing down and taking the time to pick the best tomato or variety of basil is enlightening, and for me at least, also therapeutic.
Today, as a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City, I am grateful to now share this knowledge with my fellow New Yorkers who struggle with the same challenges, lack of knowledge and access to fresh produce as I once did. Our JSY workshop participants learn about the benefits of local produce and taste low-cost recipes using various vegetables. They also learn about farmers' market locations in their neighborhood, where they can find local produce. This past year we were also able to give folks Health Bucks, $2 vouchers provided by the NYC Department of Health that are redeemable for fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets. The most rewarding part for me has been the positive reaction when someone tries a new vegetable for the first time and says, "This is delicious; I'm going to try it for dinner tonight." Now that's inspiring!
The good news is that urban farms are sprouting up all over the Bronx. The next step on this journey for me is gardening. In a concrete jungle, picking your own produce is not really common. But as a foodie, growing my own fruits and veggies is the ultimate goal. And, of course, sharing the knowledge with my fellow New Yorkers.
Stephanie Alvarado is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetable Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Caitlin Fitzpatrick
Food Bank For New York City's signature nutrition education program, CookShop, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year! On Saturday, November 2, nearly 800 teachers, parent coordinators and school staff new to the program helped us celebrate the milestone at our CookShop Training Conference. Their enthusiasm for healthy eating was contagious, and it was great to see how eager they all were to learn about CookShop's nutrition education curriculum.
Margarette Purvis, Food Bank President and CEO, got things off to exciting start by introducing a video about CookShop that helped bring the program's mission to life. Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, kept the enthusiasm going with a warm welcome address that primed the crowd for the day's activities.
Through workshops, hands-on cooking demos, and one-on-one interaction with their peers, attendees gained the tools they'll need to bring the CookShop program to their schools, and help children and families learn about nutrition. These teachers are joining 1,000 other teachers in more than 1,800 other classrooms across all five boroughs who will give their students the knowledge and skills necessary to make healthy food choices.
We would like to thank all our CookShop teachers, leaders and coordinators--old and new alike--and wish everyone a fun and successful CookShop year!
Caitlin Fitzpatrick is Nutrition and Health Services Associate at Food Bank For New York City.
by Stephanie Alvarado
When I read in a New York Times article that the Bronx, my hometown, was rated as the unhealthiest county in New York State my heart sank. While the news was extremely unsettling for me, it intensified the fire in me to continue my journey of providing nutrition education to my fellow Bronxites.
Growing up in the Bronx with a single mom and two sisters, my family and I struggled financially. For the most part we relied on food stamps and WIC for food. Our meals consisted of mainly rice and beans or plantains; they were cheap and kept us full. My mother juggled two jobs, so she also relied on fast-food restaurants to keep us fed since they were inexpensive and convenient. As a teen, I struggled with weight issues and my neighborhood didn't help. It actually made things worse. I was bombarded with corner-store bodegas and fast-food places all serving unhealthy food. I asked my doctor what I could do to lose weight and he recommended a book that introduced me to nutrition. I began researching food and how it affects your health. I was eager to learn more and wanted to share all my newfound information with everyone I knew. The correlation between a lack of healthy food in low-income areas and a high incidence of diet-related diseases suddenly made sense and it troubled me. I'd found my calling and decided to study Community Health and Nutrition in college.
Nutrition education is imperative in communities like the Bronx that lack resources. People need to know that they have nutritional options; they don't have to succumb to the unhealthy food choices surrounding them. Working for Food Bank For New York City as a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) nutritionist is truly a privilege because I'm able to deliver this vital information in low-income areas where it is most needed. Addressing hunger and nutrition education go hand in hand. As a JSY nutritionist, I conduct nutrition workshops and healthy cooking demonstrations at Food Bank's network of food pantries and soup kitchens. Because I have been confronted with the same issues as the people I teach, I'm able to relate to the obstacles they may face in trying to lead a healthier lifestyle. That makes hearing a warm "Thank you" or "I learned something new today" at the end of a workshop all the more rewarding.
In retrospect, I wonder if I, my family and my Bronx neighbors would have made healthier food choices if we'd been educated on nutrition and had healthy options readily available? It's my belief that we should at least have the right to make an educated choice. The Bronx has a long road ahead in terms of becoming a healthy place to live; nevertheless, I have happily witnessed improvements! When I began studying Nutrition at Bronx Community College, I recall walking up Burnside Avenue daily and seeing kids coming in and out of the countless fast-food chain restaurants that line the street, as I once did as a child. Fast forward six years: on that same avenue now sits a NYC Green cart stand that offers low-cost produce and accepts SNAP benefits (food stamps). A few blocks away, a Farmer's Market now runs from July through November, providing local seasonal produce and cooking demonstrations--right on the same street where I have started a JSY nutrition education series at the Davidson Community Center Food Pantry. Someone is listening! I am honored to be a part of this food movement and will continue my responsibility of reviving the Bronx, one workshop at a time.
Stephanie Alvarado is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Bonnie Averbuch
Photo Credit: Tim Reiter
One of the things I appreciate most about being a nutrition intern at Food Bank For New York City is knowing that I have a hand in improving the health of people in the Harlem community. For the past several weeks I've been developing nutrition education and providing nutrition workshops at Food Bank's new senior center, which opened at our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlem in November 2012. The more time I spend talking to the seniors, the clearer it becomes to me that this program is definitely adding some spice to their lives.
Each day starts off with a hot breakfast at 9am and finishes with supper at 2pm. But it's the hours in between that add oomph to seniors' daily routines. They get to enjoy a variety of fun, engaging activities and every day is different. When seniors walk in the door, they might find Zumba, yoga or aerobics on the schedule to help them stay physically active. Or it could be an arts-and-crafts session. Perhaps they'll learn how to eat healthier in the nutrition class I provide that day or go on an outing to a museum. There's plenty of unstructured time too, when seniors can relax and read the paper, play cards and dominos, or simply sit and chat.
From what I can tell, they enjoy all of it--from the planned activities to the free time. When I talked to Alan, a 66-year-old regular at the center who loves writing poetry, he said that the artistic activities were his favorite way to spend the day. "It helps broaden my creativity," he told me. "I'm blessed to be able to come to a place that's an outlet for senior citizens with creative minds to sing, dance, and make art." There's even an upcoming art show where clients can display their work. Another senior I met recently, Katherine, is so excited for her friends' "oohs and aahs" that she's leaving her artwork at home until the day of the show so that she can surprise everyone.
Although some of the seniors have ideas for additional activities--Betty would like a movie night--it's obvious that they appreciate having a special place to spend their days. Everyone I talked to said it again and again. "It gives retirees something to do," Edith told me. "And that's important," her friend Christine chimed in. But the center is more than just a place to go--it's a place where elderly members of the community can learn, have fun, meet new people and make new friends. "We enjoy socializing," Alan told me. "We get to know each other. We're on a first name basis." One of his new friends, Katherine, couldn't agree more: "I can't wait to get here every day," she told me with smile. I could have guessed that just by looking at her. The excitement and happiness on her face said it all.
Food Bank's Neighborhood Center for Adults 60+ is open Monday through Friday, 9am – 3pm.
Bonnie Averbuch is a Community Nutrition Intern at Food Bank Bank For New York City. She is currently pursuing her M.S. in Nutrition and Public Health at Columbia University.
by Triada Stampas
The "Fiscal Cliff" deal struck by Congress at the start of 2013 made a number of changes to the tax code – many of them beneficial for residents with low household income, especially low-income families. With Food Bank research finding 70 percent of low-income families in New York City struggling to afford food, this comes as positive news for the New Year. Regrettably, alongside these gains, Congress enacted immediate and dramatic funding cuts to nutrition education programming for these same families, including our own CookShop and Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables programs. Significantly, the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA), as it was called, extended several important provisions that were set to expire, including expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, a higher credit rate for the Dependent Care Tax Credit, as well as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which helps families pay for college. In addition, ATRA prevented an increase in taxes from kicking in for individuals earning less than $400,000 (and married couples filing jointly earning less than $450,000). Although some of these gains may be offset by the two-point increase in the payroll tax deduction, combined, these changes mean low-income tax filers will not see their tax rates increase or their available tax credits drop. In a surprise move, however, Congress decided to make an immediate 48 percent cut to this year's remaining funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education (SNAP-Ed) – a loss of more than $4.8 million for New York State's nutrition education programs that provide SNAP (food stamp)-eligible New Yorkers with the knowledge, resources and skills to make healthy food choices on a limited budget. While Food Bank will make every effort to minimize the impact of this loss on the more than 100,000 New Yorkers our nutrition education programs reach, a mid-year funding cut of this magnitude can't help but be felt. Worse yet, if Congress does not act, more cuts are on the horizon: WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is scheduled for an eight percent cut on March 1, and SNAP benefits (food stamps) are threatened in the ongoing Farm Bill negotiations. If these benefits are slashed, more New Yorkers struggling to keep food on the table will be forced to turn to our city's already overwhelmed food pantries and soup kitchens. Your advocacy can help. Please contact your Representatives today and tell them to restore SNAP-Ed funding in the next fiscal cliff deal, and protect WIC and SNAP from cuts!
Triada Stampas is Senior Director of Government Relations at Food Bank For New York City