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BANK ON IT: Food Bank For New York City's Blog


Just Say Yes to Healthy Eating

by Alane Celeste-Villalvir

Earlier this month, Food Bank brought its Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) 11-month cooking demonstration series to BOOM!Health's Harm Reduction Center. I am always a tad nervous about how new offerings will be received by our clients. JSY nutritionist Stephanie Alvarado arrived 15 minutes early to meet me and get situated for the first demo. Since there was no sign-up for the event, she asked how and when we would be announcing it to the clients. I told her that we could make an announcement, but that she should just set up in the café across from our kitchen and see how many people organically flock to her out of curiosity. Within minutes, Stephanie had a room full of clients asking her questions and actively engaged in the subject at hand. On that hot summer day, the demo was about healthy beverages and the crowd absolutely loved it!

At the end of the class, Stephanie and I discussed the turnout. We couldn't have been happier. The group loved it. These kinds of activities are incredibly powerful for our clients because they're educational AND therapeutic. People walk away with useful and practical information and, because the classes are engaging and entertaining, clients get an escape from the stress and pressures of the day to day. Our clients are predominantly homeless and unstably-housed people battling substance abuse in the Mott Haven area of the South Bronx. We also serve a growing immigrant population, people living with chronic illnesses such as Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, people who are unemployed, ex-offenders, and LGBTQ individuals--in Mott Haven and the community at large.

As we planned for the next class--this time on increasing fiber intake--I couldn't help but still be amazed that clients were so eager to engage in conversations about healthy eating! I am so happy that we pursued this program. Not only do I hope to implement it at our other food and nutrition program sites, I'm also going to take advantage of all the programs and services Food Bank For New York City has to offer. Thank you Food Bank!

Alane Celeste-Villalvir is Director of Food and Nutrition Services at BOOM!Health, a Food Bank For New York City member charity.

Reflections of a Food Bank Intern

By Sea Bensimon

Earlier this month Sea Bensimon, daughter of Food Bank Celebrity Ambassador Kelly Bensimon, joined our team as a student intern. Here, she recounts some of her day-to-day experiences – from the people she met to the lessons she learned along the way.


Working as a student intern at Food Bank For New York City has been an exciting and eye-opening experience. I've helped out with Food Bank projects in the past, but my internship allowed me to experience programs I never knew existed. I learned the true meaning of Food Bank: take hold of hunger and kick it to the curb.

Monday – CookShop for Teens: EATWISE Training

Why would New Yorkers living in low-income households have high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases? Simple: lack of access to nutritious and affordable food. On my first day as an intern I learned that unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available in poor neighborhoods, making it difficult for kids, teens and parents to form healthy eating habits and make better choices. When you're trying to get the most for your money, eating from the dollar menu at fast food chains makes sense. Many healthy or organic grocery stores are located in wealthier neighborhoods that are hard to get to and even harder to afford.

EATWISE teens learn how small changes can have a big impact on their health.

Food Bank's CookShop for Teens program – EATWISE – helps teens learn about nutrition and healthy living, and lets them teach their peers to do the same. The cool thing about this program is that teens spread the word through a social media campaign called #ChangeOneThing. The idea is to improve daily eating and exercise habits by changing just one thing. For example, instead of drinking three sodas a day, you would swap one for water. Instead of taking the escalator, take the stairs. If you want to get involved, use the hashtag #ChangeOneThing and share a photo or tip on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday – Helping Seniors in Harlem

I spent my second day at Food Bank's Community Kitchen & Food Pantry in West Harlem. I've volunteered in the Pantry before with my mom and little sister, so I thought I knew what to expect. When I got there I quickly realized that this time would be different. Without my mom and sister, I had to work side by side and interact with other volunteers and clients on my own. This made me a little nervous.

In the morning, I helped seniors choose items from the Pantry to take home. Each senior had a card to help them identify how many items from each section (such as grains, produce, dairy, protein) they could select. I had to put my mental math skills to the test as I tried to figure out how many points each client had left and what each can of food or cut of meat was worth. Even though school was out, it felt like a whole day of learning.

When the first senior came to the protein section, I mixed up the points. I was embarrassed, but as I helped the second client my confidence grew. Soon I was helping people with ease. One client's grandson even gave me a hug. I was so happy that I could help put a meal on his table.

Food Bank client Princella tends to the tomatoes at our Community Kitchen garden

Later in the day I got to see the senior garden behind the Kitchen. Here seniors grow their own spices and vegetables which are then made available in the Pantry. While I was in the garden, I met a woman named Princella. She smiled as she watered her tomatoes. It was clear that loving and caring for something made her feel proud.

Wednesday - Connecting New Yorkers

Today I worked in the call center, which connects low-income New Yorkers to benefits that help them pay for food, such as SNAP (food stamps) and free income tax assistance. Before I began working, the staff explained the meal gap map -- something I needed to understand for my task that day. The meal gap map shows areas of New York City where meals are needed the most.

Food Bank's Call Center handles more than 500 calls a week

I was responsible for calling local businesses in specific parts of Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn to see if they would be interested in SNAP brochures and posters informing people in their communities about services for which they may be eligible. Almost everyone wanted to participate. The people I spoke with gave me hope that hunger will eventually be no more.

Thursday - Ending Hunger in Brooklyn

Food Bank has a network of soup kitchens and food pantries all over New York City, and on my final day I visited one in Brooklyn. Believe it or not, it was my first time going to Brooklyn! It was really interesting to not only see a different borough, but to also see how Food Bank is working to end hunger there.

Sea on her way to help out at a pantry in Brooklyn

During my visit, I saw how computers provided by Food Bank made a huge difference to food distribution. The computers helped the staff keep track of the clientele--from how many people came in each day to their specific needs. For example, Jewish clients may want a certain type of food or have dietary restrictions. This information lets the pantry know how much and what type of food may be needed for a distribution, which helps to ensure that food isn't wasted. I had no idea that a computer could make such a difference to a food pantry trying to end hunger in its community.

At the end of my internship, I understood some of the different programs and services that make up Food Bank and how they connect to one another. I always thought Food Bank was amazing; now I think it's spectacular! I was given the opportunity to fall in love with a charity just like my Mom did. I am so blessed that I was able to take part in Food Bank's work: New Yorkers helping New Yorkers end hunger.

Sea Bensimon is a 16-year-old high school student and Food Bank summer intern who lives in Manhattan with her mom and sister.

Filling the Summer Meal Gap

By Jeff Kolsch

There is a great deal of food insecurity in our Queens community, especially among families with children. When summer comes, it gets worse. Many of our residents rely on schools to feed their kids breakfast and lunch, and once the school year ends they have to figure out how to make up the difference. If more people knew about the Summer Meals program it would help them tremendously.

Pantries like ours are the boots on the ground. In many ways we're the community centers of the neighborhood where people gather. So we have to take advantage of that reach and do everything we can to spread the word about Summer Meals.

Here at New Life we're getting the word out in several ways. We put multi-language flyers about Summer Meals into our pantry bags. We talk it up with our guests and ask them to tell their friends and family. We put information in the church bulletin. We even place it on our outdoor electronic sign on Queens Boulevard that advertises the program.

This is our seventh year taking part in Summer Meals and the people in our community really appreciate it. Parents know that their children will get a nutritious and balanced meal here every weekday, with plenty of lean protein, fresh vegetables and fruit. When you're struggling financially, lunch for your kids may be a bag of chips and a soda if that's all you can afford. I'm glad that we can give families in our community a healthy and free alternative.

Jeff Kolsch is the director of New Life Food, Clothing and Homeless Pantry in Queens, a member of Food Bank's network of charities. New Life's Summer Meals program runs through August (Mon-Fri, 11:30-1:30).

Fireworks of a Different Kind

By Jean Thompson

Exactly one year ago today, I had my first exposure to Food Bank For New York City's Community Kitchen & Food Pantry in West Harlem. We had just started a program at my chocolate company with the introduction of a new bar, called jcoco, where we make a donation that helps provide a fresh serving of food to American food banks in the cities where the bars are sold. In NYC, we chose Food Bank For New York City because it is an overarching organization that has far-reaching tentacles in NYC, and a clear, focused mission to stomp out hunger.

I showed up to volunteer and was met by the lovely Food Bank employee Tiffany, who was brand new to the organization, and participating in her first soup kitchen volunteer stint, too. We donned our hairnets and aprons and were set up to serve the long queue of New Yorkers waiting for the soup kitchen to open. Debbie, a longtime Food Bank employee was in charge of our efforts. She had a certain confidence and comfort in her demeanor that told me she had done this a few times before. She was very specific in her instructions: "Don't let anyone have more than one helping, or we might run out of food and some people will go without." This made a lot of sense to me.

The doors opened and the people started streaming in. They knew the routine – they had done this before, too. They came in every shape, color, age and demographic. They were super excited that oxtail was on the menu that day. I was surprised and delighted that virtually every person thanked us for coming to help, and for the food. Too many times in my life I have been disappointed by someone forgetting to thank me for a ride, or my business, or other little things. These people did not forget. As Debbie mentioned, many of them asked for more food than we were instructed to hand out. I wanted to give them just a half serving more; they looked hungry. Debbie stationed herself right next to me, probably because she sensed I would be too soft and she wanted to be there to remind me that there just wasn't enough to go around. I was surprised by the number of people that arrived around 5:30, harried because (I figured) they were rushing to get there after work. Yes, many of Food Bank's clients work and still cannot afford dinner for themselves or their families. As I scooped the vegetables and rice onto the plates, while trying to smile at every person, my brain was taking it all in and making sense of it. I didn't know college kids needed help with meals! What about that sweet young mother with two kids?

The Community Kitchen's facility is set up to look like a cafeteria, and music is piped in so the clients can dine in comfort. We were serving dinner on the night of July 3rd and all of a sudden Celine Dion came over the speaker singing God Bless America. The woman has the voice of an angel, and music has always had a way of penetrating my psyche and bringing forth emotions otherwise very well managed and suppressed. I started thinking, "Why does this happen in the USA?!" It didn't seem right. Then I realized that it was Americans working at Food Bank and this soup kitchen: helping other Americans, volunteering their time, and making it their life mission to do so. At that point that I realized that tears were streaming down my (usually stoic) face, and I had to hand my serving spoons to Tiffany to cover for me while I collected myself so the steady line of New Yorkers wouldn't see my emotions spilling all over my face.

Happy Birthday, America. Thank you for freedom and opportunity, and everything I cherish about my country. Thank you to Margarette, Tiffany, Debbie and all the great people at Food Bank for leading the charge in New York City to rid this great city of hunger...someday soon.

Jean Thompson
CEO, Seattle Chocolates
President's Council Member, Food Bank For New York City

Get Grilling—No Meat Required!

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.

The Best Father’s Day Gift? Healthy Children!

By Alex McBride

As a single father raising two daughters, it's up to me to make sure they have everything they need. The one thing I want my girls to have more than anything else in the world is good health, and the best way I can do that is by helping them eat healthfully. That's why my younger daughter and I go to Food Bank's Community CookShop program at Hour Children Food Pantry. The workshops teach us how to make healthy meals on a budget. I've learned to make dishes that are much better for my family than what I'd normally cook. Let's be honest, some of the foods many of us love--fried and fatty--just aren't good for us.

It's great to get new ideas for dishes that are good for my daughters--and that they actually like. I have to admit, I'm finding out about different recipes that I never thought of before, like bean salad. We used different types of beans, onions, peppers and other vegetables. It tasted really good. You can get your protein and you don't even need meat!

So now I'm stocking up on beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots of other good foods that will benefit my daughters. Their mother passed away at a young age. When I lost my wife, it really opened my eyes and made me determined to help our girls have long, healthy lives. I'm so glad that Community CookShop is in my neighborhood. We need it in our community. People need to know which foods are the most nutritious. They need to know how to cook them in a healthy way. This is the type of information that can help prevent us from getting diabetes and high blood pressure. As a dad, it's my job to know this so I can pass it on to my girls.

Alex McBride lives with his daughters, Christina, 15, and Katrina, 7, in Queens.

Campus Pantry Lessons

By Jason Adams

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day at PS21R in Staten Island, volunteering at one of Food Bank's campus pantry distributions. It was the perfect time to be at a school. With a year's worth of lessons almost behind them, students were thinking about how much they knew. The same could be said for me during my day of volunteering. As I passed out fresh pears and apples to the families who'd come to get food to take home, I realized that I was also measuring myself--figuring out what I knew about the scope of Food Bank's work.



Having been at Food Book for three years, I've gained a solid understanding of the great work our Nutrition & Health Education team does throughout the five boroughs. Although I work in Fundraising, my job requires me to stay up-to-date on the entire organization. That's why I thought I knew what to expect when I volunteered at one of our campus pantries.



However, I quickly learned that there is no substitute for firsthand experience. Everything I'd read and heard about our Campus Pantry program up to that point was great--but it wasn't mine. That is to say, it's wasn't personal knowledge. Actually participating in the program allowed me to establish my own connections and takeaways.



What grabbed me most was the excitement and eagerness of the schoolchildren "shopping" for food with their families:



"Mmmm, black beans!" 


"Tomatoes!"



"I love cucumbers!"



One girl in particular had a smile on her face the entire time. Picking from canned corn, carrots and tomato sauce, she convinced her mother that it was best to choose a variety rather than three of the same item. In fact, she already had her meal planned out for that night--pasta with a side of corn! She was trying her best to make the smartest, healthiest choices.



Getting the chance to witness and participate in this excitement added a personal layer to my understanding of our work. I discovered that the best way to learn more about what we do is to get out there and see it. Now, if I have to describe the Campus Pantry program to someone, I just have to think back to the enthusiasm of those children.



If you'd like to volunteer with Food Bank, sign up at http://volunteer.foodbanknyc.org.



Jason Adams is Food Bank For New York City's Individual Giving Assistant.

A Senior in Service

By Ruth Danis

When the Forest Hills Jewish Center, of which I'm a member, announced a volunteer project at Food Bank For New York City, I wanted to join in. I'm 89 years old and I volunteer quite a bit. It's important for seniors to stay involved in the community. It keeps you active and connected.

My experience at Food Bank was wonderful. I helped repack food at their Bronx warehouse and although it was a lot of work, I enjoyed spending time with all the other volunteers. Most of all, it felt great to be a part of something so meaningful--to really make a difference.

I knew that my contribution that day would help many people in need all across New York City, especially seniors. That was my whole purpose in going. As a senior myself, I feel for other seniors who are having a hard time.

Helping others is what we're here for. If we're lucky enough to have, we must give to those who don't have. That's a lesson I hope my seven great-grandchildren learn through my example.

Ruth Danis, a former teacher for 25 years, lives in Forest Hills, Queens.

A Matter of Choice

By Gherell Owens

As a Member Engagement Specialist I visit programs every day that distribute food by handing out pantry bags. I encourage them to convert to client choice because it improves the distribution process and offers clients a more dignified experience.

This past winter, I visited Give Them to Eat in the Bronx and spoke with Program Director Rev. Danilo Lachapel and Program Coordinator Maria Vives. They nodded and agreed with me as I gave my spiel, but I still wasn't sure if they'd really make the switch. A few months later, during another visit, Rev. Lachapel asked me to give an impromptu sermon on client choice to the volunteers and clients gathered in the church sanctuary. I was nervous but I did it, and this time I had a feeling that a conversion just might happen. A proclamation that things were about to change for the better was made that day!

Two weeks after my big speech I returned to Give Them to Eat on a cold and blustery day. An equally chilly air of uncertainty still lingered as I set out to complete my objective. And the perfect opportunity was about to present itself. The program distributes an astounding amount of produce from its parking lot, and they had recently come up with the brilliant idea of splitting it into two aisles instead of one to speed up the process and cut wait times. I seized the moment and did the very same thing as a way to introduce client choice to their pantry.

The volunteers and I headed inside and set up two rows of parallel tables, each side topped with the exact same pantry items. As clients entered to "shop" the tables, they ooohed and aaahed, amazed by the change. One after another commented on how much happier they were with the new setup. You could feel their sense of dignity--and that's what client choice is all about.

Gherell Owens is a Member Engagement Specialist at Food Bank For New York City.

Dignity in Choice

Hour Children Food Pantry client Renee

By Abigael Burke

In my work as food pantry coordinator at Hour Children Food Pantry, I see the faces of hunger and poverty firsthand. Our clients here in Long Island City are struggling and we're doing everything we can to help them get through these hard times. But times are getting tougher.

Ever since the November 2013 SNAP cuts, the need in Queens has continued to increase. In one month alone we serve more than 3,000 people. Hour Children is one of only two emergency food providers within walking distance of Ravenswood Houses and Queensbridge North Housing Project, two of the largest low-income housing projects in the nation--home to nearly 8,000 people, including our client Renee.

Born in Queens, Renee lives in the Queensbridge housing project with her two granddaughters. In 2010 she suffered a back injury that rendered her unable to work. Without a paycheck to depend on, it wasn't long before she began experiencing food insecurity and skipping meals so that her grandchildren could eat. Then a neighbor told her about Hour Children Food Pantry. Renee was grateful to find someplace in the community where she could turn for help. Now she no longer has to sacrifice herself in order to feed her grandkids.

She says that her favorite part of Hour Children is the welcoming atmosphere. Our goal is to provide healthy and nutritious food in the most non-judgmental and respectful way possible. That's why our food pantry is client-choice, which enables people to select food in a supermarket-style setting. As Renee puts it, "There is dignity in choice."

Abigael Burke is the Food Pantry Coordinator at Hour Children Food Pantry in Queens, a member of Food Bank For New York City's network of charities.

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