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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Students Design Wellness Stickers at The Family School

Shanjida, the artist of the Family School’s healthy snack sticker and Ms. Quinones, the Family School art teacher.

This post was written by Cara Plott, a FoodCorps service member serving with Bronx Health REACH. She is partnering with The Family School in the Bronx, NY to integrate garden and nutrition lessons into classes, promote healthy food options in the cafeteria, and support a school wide culture of health. She is very grateful for the opportunity to work with The Family School, where teachers, administration, cafeteria staff, and students appreciate the importance of healthy bodies and healthy minds for learning and growing. 

Powerful enough to quiet a room, fabulous enough to wear home, that’s right, we’re talking stickers at the Family School, an elementary school in the Bronx. The teachers at the Family School recognize that stickers are a great healthy reward for younger students, however Ms. Quinones, our art teacher decided to take it a step further this year. In her art class we worked with students in grades pre-K to 2nd to design a “healthy snack sticker,” an idea we originally got from an initiative at PS 331. Through a series of lessons, Ms. Quinones helped students discover what healthy snack choices are, and why it important to make healthy choices. Students used this knowledge to make designs that portrayed healthy choices. After these lessons, our students made drawings that represented healthy snacks and encouraged choosing these foods.

Other student Healthy Snack Sticker designs displayed in The Family School art room.

Out of many beautiful designs, we picked the one made by Shanjida, a very talented second grader, for her thoughtful use of color and layout. Shanjida is well versed in vegetables and fruits because she has grown vegetables in The Family School garden in kindergarten and first grade. “When you eat healthy stuff you can grow and it’s better for you, when you eat junk food you get tired and you aren’t able to get more energy,” Shanjida explained.The stickers will be distributed by adult leaders in the cafeteria to students who bring or buy lunches that contain fruits and vegetables and healthy protein and carbohydrates, and will help to reinforce the Family School’s healthy snack policy.
The winning Healthy Snack Sticker designed by Shanjida, 2nd Grade.

Community Commitment: Lessons From 3 Bronx Bodega Owners

Left to right: Luis Obdulio González, Melquis Garcia and Frank Marte.

Bronx Health REACH in partnership with The Bodega Association and the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network (HITN) has created the Healthy Bodega Program, and through our two and a half year partnership we have gotten to know many of our bodega owners. At a recent meeting three bodega owners shared their humble beginnings in the Bronx, proving their long standing commitment to the community at a time when many businesses had fled, perceiving the place as hostile to businesses and residents alike.

Here are their stories:

Frank Marte, Owner of Green Earth Food Deli Grocery on East 205th Street in The Bronx

"Back in the 1980's, the Bronx was torn apart. There were a lot of burned out and abandoned buildings, but we came to open our bodegas, and we gave life to those burned out and abandoned neighborhoods. I was 19 years old when I started in the Bronx. My brother owned a few bodegas and he wanted me to manage the one at 2588 Creston Avenue, a very tough neighborhood. A lot of marijuana was being sold in and around that bodega, and I am the type of person who was always against anything that had to do with drugs. The store was in the basement and at various times the dealers would not allow anyone to enter or exit the store." 

"The first six months I stopped many people coming there to buy drugs because I had a business to run and would not allow this illegal behavior to continue. I told them, 'If you light up in my store, I am going to throw you out.' You could do whatever outside of the store, but do not sell drugs in my store. It did not matter how powerful they were. At the time my English was not very good, and the drug dealers said they liked me being a tough guy to them, but I did not understand what that meant. I guess you can say I was tough and dumb, but they respected me." 

"The store closed two years later since it was not authorized to operate out of a basement, so I bought a store around the corner in partnership with my brother on 192nd Street and Grand Concourse, and we are still there to this day. Over time, the neighborhoods started to improve, and now you see families moving out of Washington Heights and settling in the Bronx."

Melquis Garcia, A & M Supermarket

"My uncles had a store on Watson Avenue in the Bronx, and my mom was working with my uncles. Watson Avenue ran through Soundview, and it was a very tough neighborhood back in the 1980's and 1990's. I heard stories of bodega workers getting killed in robberies, so I came to the United States because I wanted to get my mom out of there. Even though I had graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering, when I arrived in the United States I opened a small store. I had many people coming to my store. Other owners heard about my success and eventually sold me their businesses."

Luis Obdulio González

"From 1985 to 2005, there were big problems in the Bronx. At my first store in 1985, the counter was all bullet proof glass to protect my employees. Over time, along with the New York Police Department, we were able to clear out the drug dealers, and the neighborhood changed for the better. My customers trusted me to leave their house keys at my bodega for their children to pick up after school. My bodega became a community center that brought neighbors closer together. I sold that store 15 years ago, but I still return to visit as many of my customers, who are still in the neighborhood, remember me."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

From a Church in the Living Room to Feeding Thousands in the Bronx

Bronx Health REACH continues its series on individuals who have made a significant contribution to the Institute for Family Health's Bronx Health REACH, and have also been strong activists for needed change in the Black and Latino communities in the Bronx. A notable member of this group of change agents is The Reverend John Udo-Okon, Senior Pastor at the Word of Life International in the Bronx, New York, and a partner in the Bronx Health REACH faith based outreach initiative.

The Rev. John Udo-Okon's first Bronx location for his church, Word of Life International, was the size of a living room. In fact, it was his living room where his parishioners gathered in the one bedroom Bronx apartment he shared with his family. Born and raised in Nigeria, Pastor John worked with missionaries from the Sudan United Mission-Christian Reformed Church in Northern Nigeria to develop Christian shows for television and film productions in Nigeria. In 1998 Pastor John took a two year sabbatical from his work in Nigeria to spend time with his wife, Rev. Felicia Udo-Okon, who lived in United States. He lived in the Bronx intending to return to Nigeria after his sabbatical, but , as Pastor John puts it, “God had other plans for him.”

“I was praying and talking to other people of faith, and I was thinking of starting a ministry in the Bronx, but I kept asking myself, how do I start it? Then I heard a voice, ‘Start where you are.’ We were living in a one bedroom apartment on the fourth floor, and I was convinced that God wanted me to start a church in the apartment, so I told my wife let’s turn our living room into a church. Neighbors began attending every Sunday."

After seeing many people visiting the apartment, a neighbor informed Pastor John that he could not have people coming to his house for church every Sunday; “If you want to have a church, you need to find a larger space.” So Pastor John began to pray, and again, he heard a voice: “Go to White Plains Road by 214th Street.” He went to White Plains Road and 214th Street, and as he was standing on the corner a man came up to him and asked if he was looking for a space for his church. Pastor John was led to 3636 Holland Avenue, which became the new location for Word of Life International. Even though he now had a larger space, the area was drug infested. “Gun shots could be heard during services and drug dealers would run into the church and leave their drugs behind. The parishioners became wary of the new location. So we began to go out into the neighborhood and stand on the street corners along with the drug dealers and talk and pray with them. Eventually the drug dealers moved on, and after a few months with police involvement, the area became drug-free."

New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony, founder of the Carmelo Anthony Foundation assisted with a November 2015 food drive providing 800 families with food at Word of Life International.

As his congregation grew Pastor John moved Word of Life International to 1299 Louis Nine Boulevard in the South Bronx. One day, as he was driving with church members along Park Avenue he saw a well dressed man looking for something in the garbage can. "I said to my wife, look at this man - he is looking for drugs.”  My wife said, ‘No, that man is hungry.’ “We began to argue, and just to prove my wife wrong, I parked and went up to this man and asked if he was looking for something in that trash can. The man told me that he was hungry and looking for food. I gave him $5 dollars to buy food, and we decided to turn our church into a food pantry." At first Pastor John and his parishioners would donate food from their own homes. Eventually they organized and collected food donations from local restaurants, grocery stores and other food banks. The program currently serves up to 8,000 people each month. Other services offered by Word of Life International include a fitness and nutrition education program as well as a senior wellness program for those 55 and older that meets every Thursday.

 So what is his secret for reaching so many in the community? "It's not the size of your congregation, but how you respond to the needs of the community. Whatever you do for your community eventually will benefit you. The community members we have helped joined our congregation because of the work we did for them and others. Some of them came in as volunteers, fell in love with the work we were doing, and today they are worshiping with us.”

Pastor John continues to strengthen his network of volunteers every day, whether it is from the youth that have put in over 6000 community service hours to the partnership with other Bronx churches, where he mentors four other churches in Bronx Health REACH’s faith based initiative. A few days prior to Thanksgiving he received a call from a former parishioner currently living in Baltimore. The parishioner asked if it was possible for Word of Life International to help out Baltimore residents in need. “I filled a van with food the day before Thanksgiving, and it was delivered to hungry Baltimore residents.” To Pastor John, caring for the needy is not limited to just the Bronx, nor to those inside the church. “The time has come for us to get out of the church, get out to the streets and do something because at the end of the day, the best way to preach the gospel is to lift somebody up.”

Getting to the Root of Healthy Eating

Photograph by Robert Abrams

This post was written by  Cara Plott, a FoodCorps service member serving with Bronx Health REACH. She is partnering with The Family School in the Bronx, NY to integrate garden and nutrition lessons into classes, promote healthy food options in the cafeteria, and support a school wide culture of health. She is very grateful for the opportunity to work with The Family School, where teachers, administration, cafeteria staff, and students appreciate the importance of healthy bodies and healthy minds for learning and growing. 

Crunching sounds and smiles filled the cafeteria at The Family School during our school wide taste test of multicolored carrots, juicy apples and crispy Asian pears grown on farms in New York and Pennsylvania. The program was sponsored by the New York City Department of Education Office of SchoolFood’s Garden to Cafe program.

The students at The Family School are especially appreciative of the work that goes into growing fruits and vegetables because many of them are gardeners themselves. Students ranging in age from kindergarten to 5th grade are currently growing a multitude of crops including radishes, lettuce, kale, and sunflower sprouts in our school garden.

Preparations for the event began early in the morning. Holly and George, the Garden to Cafe team, washed, chopped and arranged the produce. Their beautiful display was lit by the natural sunlight from the tall cafeteria windows, bringing out the deep purple, vibrant orange, and subtle yellow shades of the carrots, apples, and pears.

Of course, no matter how pretty the produce looks, a taste test is only a success if students actually want to eat the food! That is where our student Wellness Ambassadors come to the rescue. Our Wellness Ambassadors were 2nd and 5th grade students nominated by their teachers to help support their peers in making healthy choices.  As a FoodCorps service member, I have had more than a little experience encouraging students to try new foods, and these Wellness Ambassadors were naturals! Donning their Wellness Ambassador pins (designed by a Family School student) and food service gloves, these students encouraged their friends and peers to take a taste of the produce as they passed it out. Questioning why purple carrots are purple? Not sure about whether you are ready to try something that you have never seen before? No problem! As I carried the tray while the Wellness Ambassadors passed them out, the samples flew off the tray so quickly I soon had to go back for a refill.

Now, the question you have been waiting to ask - did the students like the carrots, apples and pears? The answer was a resounding YES! After the taste test, some of the students who tried the produce had the opportunity to vote. The results speak for themselves.

Photograph by Robert Abrams
After tasting the apples, carrots, and pears, students sticker voted on what they liked or did not like yet.

Often, popular culture would have us believe that getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables is some kind of epic battle. However, those of us at The Family School last week experienced something far from this. Yes, some foods take a bit longer to grow on us than others, but through small exposures to new colors, textures, and tastes, kids can develop an excitement and appreciation for the foods that will empower them, not slow them down. Through school wide taste tests like this one we not only work towards normalizing fruits and vegetables, but spark conversations about where our food comes from, how it affects our bodies, and what we choose to do with the energy we derive from it. Rather than feeding into the “kids don’t like vegetables” stereotype, we need to think outside the box, such as empowering students to support each other in making healthy choices. Their health and future depend on it.