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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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Healthy Cooking Demos Prove that Bodegas Can Sell Healthy and Delicious Food

This post was written by Bronx Health REACH staff member Zaira Hernandez-Cinto.

As a South Bronx native I have never associated bodegas with healthy food, and most people I know tend to associate bodegas with unhealthy snacks such as soda, potato chips and candy. To clear up some of the misconceptions that people have had that bodegas only sell unhealthy food, Bronx Health REACH, in partnership with the Bodega Association of the United Stated (ASOBEU), and the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network (HITN) has been holding healthy cooking demos at three of our healthy model bodegas.

Brito Deli, located at 309 Crimmins Avenue, hosted the first food demonstration. Although it was a rainy day, many people took part in the cooking demo. Pamela Di Gregorio, the community chef leading the food demonstrations, came up with a delicious and healthy recipe using items that can be bought at Brito Deli. She created a Southwestern Salad with a Lime Cilantro Vinaigrette, a recipe that featured low sodium canned black beans, tomatoes, red peppers, corn, lettuce and a delicious vinaigrette made from extra virgin olive oil, lime, cilantro and other ingredients. The salad was well received by the customers, and many of those who stopped by to sample it were surprised to learn that the salad was made from ingredients sold at the deli. Some customers remarked that they usually associated the bodega with unhealthy food, but were happy to receive and taste the Southwestern salad. 35 people tried the salad over the hour long demonstration.

Another healthy food demonstration took place at A & M Supermarket Deli, located at 1393 Webster Avenue. Pamela used the same Southwestern salad with a Lime Cilantro Vinaigrette recipe, but this time the food demonstration took place outside of the store to attract the attention of the neighborhood. The reaction from those passing by was very positive. People were excited to try the salad and loved that they were receiving a recipe along with the sample. Many people expressed the need for nutrition education and assistance in creating healthy dishes that are delicious and easy to prepare. The owner and staff of A & M Supermarket Deli also loved the salad and were helpful in getting skeptical customers to try the samples. Some customers who admitted not liking vegetables were pleasantly surprised to discover how much they enjoyed the salad. A total of 55 people tried the salad.

The food demonstration at La Bodeguita de Rosaura at 164 East 174th Street was also a success. 50 customers were surprised that a salad could be so delicious and filling. Customers expressed a need for nutrition education and ideas on how they could make healthy meals. The customers felt that although they knew that they needed to eat healthier, they did not know how to distinguish between healthy or unhealthy foods. The work being done with our healthy model bodegas can bridge that gap by providing nutrition education and recipes so people can make healthy dishes that not only taste delicious, but are nutritious as well.

After the positive responses and feedback from the customers who attended the healthy cooking demos, I believe that local residents can see bodegas as a place to purchase healthy foods. The Healthy Model Bodega Initiative aims to break the misconception that bodegas only sell junk food and will aid them in becoming healthier shopping destinations for the community. Please support our bodegas and look out for our next food demo, by following us on Instagram and Facebook.

Parents from PS 35 Farmer’s Market Tour

This post was written by Bronx Health REACH intern Wilka Diaz.

On a beautiful, warm Tuesday morning in October, Bronx Health REACH conducted a farmers market tour at the Bronx Borough Hall Farmers Market for fourteen parents from Public School 35. The group discussed the health benefits of incorporating vegetables and fruits into their diets. Parents discussed strategies to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Ideas suggested included the use of colorful plates and tasting each new food at least three times.

As the tour continued, Bronx Health REACH informed parents that local farmers markets sell seasonal produce and that at the end of the growing season many of the markets close November 17. Parents were also told of the year-round Fresh Food Box at BronxWorks on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. located at 1130 Grand Concourse. Many expressed interest in the fact that it was year round.

The tour included information about Health Bucks, the $2 coupons used to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets around New York City. $10 worth of Health Bucks was distributed to the parents thanks to Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson who had secured $5000 worth of Health Bucks in an effort to encourage her constituents to purchase produce at their local farmers markets. Parents were encouraged to ask farmers about their customers favorite items at the market.

Overall, the tour was an excellent way to let parents know of the many ways their families can eat healthy. Many community members approached the parents and asked about Health Bucks, and how they can join the tour. When asked if they would attend these events in the future, all the PS35 parents responded “Yes!” One parent said she liked the tour because she discovered a nearby farmers market and liked the idea of going as a group. Another parent appreciated the information about the Fresh Food Box, while another parent stated, “I really like the fact that we can have so many fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Bronx Health REACH will be hosting more farmers market tours in November with various schools in the Bronx. Each tour will consist of a brief nutrition education workshop, resource giveaways, and an opportunity for each participant to spend $10 worth of Health Bucks on fresh produce from the market.