New initiative focused on making healthy food plentiful in Cypress Hills

“What do you guys think of the food in the neighborhood?” Cassandra Flechsig asked a group of 14-year-olds at CHLDC’s Summer Youth Employment Program orientation at IS 171.

The 20 or so young people paused to consider an answer. It was a question many of them hadn’t thought much about. As Cassandra gave them more information about health and nutrition, the teenagers began formulating answers.

“It’s bad food,” a student finally concluded.

“Lots of fast food,” said another.

“I like fast food,” someone else chimed in.

“But it’s processed,” the first student responded.

CHLDC's Alyssa Hoyle prepares a smoothie to prove to young people that healthy food is also delicious.

CHLDC’s Alyssa Hoyle prepares a smoothie to prove to young people that healthy food is also delicious.

And so it went. Equal parts consciousness raising and healthy food demonstration, the workshop was part of CHLDC’s Communities for Healthy Food, a new initiative that promotes healthy living across the various CHLDC divisions and through partnerships with local restaurants and bodegas, urban gardens, farmer’s markets, and nutritional education. The program is funded by a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) via the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

“Really, what we are trying to do is help people in Cypress Hills lead healthier lives,” says Cassandra, CHLDC’s community healthy food advocate.  “For us, that starts with having access to healthful food options. That also means knowledge–knowing that some foods are filled with sugars or saturated fats and having the knowledge and power to eat more healthfully.”

Cassandra, along with Food Access Outreach Coordinator Alyssa Hoyle and intern Kelsey Camilo, demonstrated just that point in the workshop by telling the teens what the average American consumes in sugar daily (25 teaspoons compared to the World Health Organization’s recommended 6 teaspoons) and showing them the hidden sugars in a range of processed foods.

They then proved to the students that healthier food could be as yummy as any processed food by blending fruits and vegetables into a smoothie. Their point was that nutritious meals can be prepared with foods from the corner bodega

A sign outside Tavares Restaurant advertises its new healthy "Power Plate."

A sign outside Tavares Restaurant advertises its new healthy “Power Plate.”

Another cornerstone of the initiative is working with local businesses to help them highlight current and offer new healthy menu options. The Communities for Healthy Food team has been actively reaching out to businesses in and around Fulton Street to offer more wholesome fare.

Tavares Restaurant, for example, proudly displays in its front window a “Power Plate” sign advertising the healthy lunch plate designed with the help of the Communities for Healthy Food team.

“I am happy to help out my neighbors who want to eat more healthfully by taking part in this effort,” said Julio Tavares, owner of the eatery on Cleveland Street. “Working with the CHLDC program, I am planning a new menu with lots of salads, vegetables, fruits and whole grains for fair prices. I know it will be popular with my customers.”

The market is staffed entirely by youths from Cypress Hills.

The market is staffed entirely by youths from Cypress Hills.

To promote the healthier options, the program recently published the Fulton Street Food Guide in collaboration with Teachers College Columbia University students. It includes descriptions of 13 markets and restaurants in the neighborhood, which stock items such as raw and prepared fruits, vegetables, and grilled and steamed dishes.

In addition to education and outreach, the initiative also includes the Cypress Hills Youth Market, which is run by young people and sells locally grown produce from July through November. And this year, the CHLDC team helped bring a second farmers’ market to the neighborhood on Elderts Lane and Liberty Avenue.

Residents queue up to purchase fruits and vegetables at the CHLDC Youth Market.

Residents queue up to purchase fruits and vegetables at the CHLDC Youth Market.

Cassandra and Alyssa are optimistic about the impact the program will have on the neighborhood. Restaurants and bodegas have been open to including healthier food options, the Youth Market will attract more people by hosting music performances, cooking demonstrations, and other on-site promotions. And educational workshops will be part of summer programming at El Jardin del Pueblo, CHLDC’s urban garden.

“Our message is that knowledge is empowering,” Alyssa says. “I hope that education about nutrition will allow community members to lead healthier, happier lives.”

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