Program Profiles explores the work being carried out by local organizations in the field of nutrition education
The Lower East Side Girls Club
Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award winner, 2006
USDA Community Food Project Grant recipient 2002, 2006
56 E. 1st Street New York, NY 10003
E-mail: [email protected]
It is possible to make fresh, healthy food popular among urban youth, even in the heart of New York City, and the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York can prove it. You just have to make it cool, tasty, profitable and empowering.
Empowerment is part of the mission of the Girls Club, a grassroots organization founded in 1996 by neighborhood mothers, workers, artists, and community activists, to provide opportunities to girls in Manhattan’s Lower Eastside. The 50-block area of the Lower Eastside includes 27 public housing complexes and more than half of the neighborhood’s residents live at or below the poverty line. Since its founding, the Girls Club has been dedicated to ensuring that youth in the community learn to think critically and act positively, learn to care for themselves and others and grow into productive and happy adults. Today the Club runs over twenty programs for girls focusing on physical and emotional health, education, arts, leadership and business skills and development of their own voice and identity.
Lyn Pentecost, who was one of the concerned neighborhood founding mothers, and is now the Executive Director, says that the Girls Club is “unique in the sense that it is open to any girl who wants it. It’s different because it’s not just a one issue organization.” This is important because the community’s obstacles to social and economic success are multifaceted, including high rates of poverty, crime, school drop-out and unemployment, all aggravated by limited access to nutritious and healthy food. In response, Girls Club programs are holistic or multi-issue. Some of the most innovative programs use food as a tool to teach financial literacy, business skills, entrepreneurship, nutrition, environmental awareness and many other skills.
The organization’s first food project was also its first earned-income venture, the Sweet Things Bake Shop, which yielded profits, jobs and training for the participating girls. The next programs grew out of several trips to regional farms. First, the girls began to incorporate local and nutritious ingredients into the bakery recipes. The Bake Shop now offers healthy added-value products, such as dried fruit, granola bars, organic baby food and more. The Bake Shop kitchen is open to members and their parents, who may receive training in product development, marketing and advertising for value-added products made for household use or for sale at the farmers’ market.
The girls also began to notice that in their neighborhood and at their school—unlike at the farms they visited—there was no access to fresh food. The only snack options near their high school were soda, candy or pizza. The Girls Club opened several Juice Joints, afterschool smoothie and muffin bars, as a way to offer nutritious snacks in school. The first Juice Joint was located in a public high school one day a week. Within a year, four Juice Joints were operating five days a week in four different schools.
Additionally, working with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the Girls Club established relationships with several farmers and opened a weekend farmers’ market. Along with the farmers, the market features an education kiosk staffed by girls, and girls sell granola and other bakery goods. Girls Club staff conduct outreach to WIC program recipients, many of whom now use their Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons to purchase produce at the market.
“The incidence of obesity among youth is what got us started,” states Project Director Adrianna Pezzuli. Through the extension of the highly replicable Juice Joints, the Girls Club reaches more than 2000 teens weekly with positive messages about nutrition. Listing the benefits of the Girl Club nutrition programs, Pezzuli says, “In an immediate sense, the Girls Club has increased girls’ energy, class participation, and enthusiasm in school; positively affected eating habits due to increased familiarity with healthy foods and produce; made available personal health and nutrition group sessions to girls most at-risk; and enabled better self-esteem through a sense of personal bodily health. In the long-term, the Girls Club will help lower the incidence of obesity, decrease the likelihood that girls will develop Type II diabetes, diminish the chances that girls will develop cardiovascular disease as they become adults and open girls’ minds to the many ways in which they can integrate physical activity into their daily lives.”
Another Girls Club’s venture is the [email protected] Café, a five-day per week, after-school health food Internet café for low-income youth and their families, serving food prepared with local and regional produce. The Café provides an entrepreneurial program for young adults ages 18-25 who are either transitioning out of foster care or attending college part-time; provides peer health education; and creates attractive, affordable, accessible, nutritious and delicious snack options for the entire youth population of the Lower Eastside.
Adapted from a profile in Building Community Food Security: Lessons Learned from Community Food Projects [PDF], 1999-2003 and It’s a Girl’s Thing, by Abraham Paulos, WhyHunger Communications Assistant, 2007.
For more, also see the WhyHunger Community Food Project profile for The Lower East Side Girls Club.
Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award Finalist 1996, 2001, 2004
Texas is fourth in the nation in food insecurity. Over 17% of the state’s households lack the means to provide consistent nourishment for maintaining health. In Austin, the Sustainable Food Center is dedicated not only to increasing the city’s food security, but to empowering communities to meet their own basic food needs with fresh, affordable, nutritious foods. Through urban community garden training, regional farm marketing, farm to cafeteria programs and hands-on nutrition and cooking classes, the Sustainable Food Center builds community food security in Austin neighborhoods most at risk for obesity and diet-related illnesses.
The Center addresses nutrition specifically through La Cocina Alegre, or The Happy Kitchen. The program is a free series of six week cooking classes combining nutrition education with healthy cooking. Each week, the class takes on a different part of the Food Plate through instruction and cooking. At the end of each class, participants take home a bag of groceries with everything needed to make the dish at home.
What makes La Cocina Alegre successful is its fun, simple and interactive approach to nourishment. Nutrition, obesity and diet-related diseases are often presented in an overcomplicated way that can discourage people from making healthy eating a priority in their lives. The down-to-earth approach of the course, instead, is accessible to participants from all walks of life. The changes are easy to implement and the recipes are delicious, easy to make and affordable. Class size is small — 10-15 people—and facilitators are graduates of the program themselves.
The curriculum follows the Food Plate, taking on a new food group each week: grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy. The class discusses a wide range of topics, such as whole grains (e.g., brown versus white rice), low-fat dairy options, knife skills, how to read nutrition labels, and smart shopping. They then prepare a recipe, which could include fruit crisp with fresh strawberries, Mexican brown rice salad, cornbread, rosemary chicken with cherry tomatoes, tomatillo fish, fresh fruit smoothies, chili popcorn or crunchy cabbage salad. Classmates share stories while cooking, such as other uses for a favorite vegetable or strategies for getting children to eat certain foods.
Cooking class participant Jennifer Rivera said about the class, “The best part about it is that it’s accessible to everybody. So many communities don’t have the resources to have nutritional information…or even cooking lessons! It’s just so important for families to have that! … It’s really neat how even our kids could do a lot of [the recipes]…so when their parents are working, they can still feed themselves, and feed each other… [The classes are] accessible to families, so that they can help each other. I like that.”
Phyllis Kindred, another participant, talked about the ripple effect the class had on her family: “I’m slowly trying to get my daughter and her two children to eat healthier. We went to the bulk aisle of the grocery store, and bought her some stuff… In the garden, I’m trying to get my other two granddaughters and their mother to get involved with eating better, and just let them experience the feeling, like our generation had, of what it is to eat natural. Organic: this is the way God designed it.”
To further the impact of The Happy Kitchen, the Sustainable Food Center has compiled its recipes into a cookbook and offers training to other organizations in and around Texas to start similar programs. The Center recognizes that it is critical not only to ensure that people know how to prepare healthy foods, but that they have access to them in the first place—through urban gardens and markets. La Cocina Alegre, therefore, is one key piece of an integrated strategy for improving nutrition in Austin’s highest risk communities.
The Tohono O’odham Nation lies in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, 60 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. Approximately 18,000 of the tribe’s 24,000 members live on this main section of the Tohono O’odham Reservation, which encompasses nearly 4,600 square miles. Despite having lived self-sufficiently on their native desert land for generations, the social, economic and political domination inflicted on the Tohono O’odham—as on other native peoples of this continent—has driven the Nation into poverty and threatened its culture with extinction.
Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) was founded in response to community needs, but builds on the Nation’s cultural wealth and assets, with the awareness that “the community already has the solutions.” Indeed, the Tohono O’odham, whose name translates to “People of the Desert,” have traditional practices that are intimately adapted to their desert surroundings—from transforming fibrous desert plants into world-renowned baskets, to harvesting fruit off the tops of imposing saguaro cacti averaging 30 feet in height.
Tohono O’odham Community Action supports community-based initiatives that build upon already-existing knowledge, tradition and other assets of the Tohono O’odham people. One particularly devastating problem that TOCA works to address is the skyrocketing rate of diabetes within the Tohono O’odham Nation. Although diabetes was unheard of in the Nation fifty years ago, the Tohono O’odham now have the highest rate of diabetes in the world, with up to 70% of adults over the age of 35 currently afflicted with the disease.
TOCA realizes that an effective solution lies in the very foods that the Tohono O’odham were encouraged to abandon and to substitute with government commodities. Traditional cultivated crops such as tepary beans and foods harvested from the wild, such as saguaro fruit, cholla (another type of cactus) buds and mesquite pods all contain compounds which serve as barriers to sugar absorption into the bloodstream. These foods help both to prevent diabetes and to lessen the health risks of those who already have the disease. In order to make these foods widely accessible on the Tohono O’odham reservation (a TOCA survey revealed a high demand), TOCA is working with community members to revive traditional agriculture and traditional practices for harvesting wild foods. While there was no more than an acre of traditional crops under cultivation on the reservation in 2001, hundreds of thousands of pounds of traditional foods are now harvested each year.
One of the most striking things about TOCA’s work with native foods is that it is accomplishing much more than fighting diabetes and promoting good health. It is rebuilding the food system and reclaiming the culture in the process. After all, as TOCA’s co-director Tristan Reader explained, Tohono O’odham culture is an agri-culture in the truest sense of the term. Prayers, songs, dances and other cultural practices are all based on growing and harvesting food. In reviving the traditional food practices of the Tohono O’odham, TOCA is reviving the very fabric of Tohono O’odham existence—the practices from which other cultural traditions emerged. Reader related the story of an older woman who hadn’t planted crops since she was a girl and had just planted again, with TOCA’s assistance. With her seeds in the earth waiting for water, the rain ceremony that she had been conducting for years took on a whole new level of significance. “This year, when I sang, I sang like I meant it!” she said.
Now with growing interest in traditional foods on the reservation, the work of TOCA has only just begun, and many opportunities, as well as challenges, lie ahead. Having already made some inroads into local supermarkets and hospitals—tepary beans are now a hospital staple on the reservation—TOCA is now working to broaden the distribution of traditional foods into other retail outlets and institutions, including schools. While TOCA has successfully worked with schools on gardening projects, nutrition classes and other activities exposing youth to native foods and agriculture, incorporating traditional foods into school meals is a different story. Reader explained that this is because school meal regulations are made far away in Washington, D.C., “Where native foods aren’t found on their charts.”
TOCA has faced similar challenges with other federal nutrition programs, which have created dependency on outside products that often lack the nutritional benefits of locally available traditional foods. “Cholla buds have four times the calcium of milk ounce for ounce—imagine if mothers could use WIC (Woman, Infants, and Children) coupons to purchase cholla buds!” said Reader. He added, “Government commodity programs need to consider the need for foods that are nutritionally beneficial and regionally appropriate.”
The work of TOCA is part of a native foods movement that is sprouting up all over—a movement that could help us all, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, to think about our relationship to the food we eat. Holding a single white tepary bean in his hand, Reader added, “You’re not just looking at a bean—these foods are the staples of people’s lives.”
Adapted from a field report by Christina Schiavoni, Global Movements Program Director, 2006.
For more, see the WHY Community Food Project profile for Tohono O’odham Community Action, and Building Community Food Security: Lessons Learned from Community Food Projects, 1999-2003.