Sunday, December 6, 2009

South Bronx Food and Film Expo

Yesterday, I had the great opportunity to attend the South Bronx Food and Film Expo at The Point: Community Development Center in the Bronx. As they mentioned, it was very important to have this type of event in their neighborhood because the South Bronx is the poorest congressional neighborhood in America. It is difficult for families who are living in poverty to eat healthy food because they tend to be more expensive and less accessible. Also, the rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity were at higher levels in this neighborhood. The beginning of the day was an information fair where different organizations based out of the Hunts Point section of the Bronx promoted their work in the community with pamphlets and photos of events they have sponsored. Many of them were dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables locally and donating the fresh produce to the members of the community.
The next portion of the day was the film expo, which included three films highlighting the work of volunteers in other neighbored in NYC that promote healthier eating habits. I will be speaking about 2 of the 3 films. The first film, entitled "What's on your plate?" followed two 5th grade NYC public school students (Safiyeh and Sadie) on their journey to find out where their food comes from and how this affects their health. Their exploration began on a family trip to Ohio where the girls tried some locally grown tomatoes and described them as, "the best they've ever had." Being from the city, they were never exposed to that type of fresh produce straight from a farm. So they were inspired to look for the origin of the fruits and vegetables they eat. One of the students has high blood pressure so this investigation was especially useful as she monitored her blood pressure and how it changed after her newfound eating habits as a result of this process.

Their investigation began by researching the origins of produce sold in NYC. On a big map made of felt, they attached small pictures of individual fruits and vegetables to the world map. They found that the United States grew a lot of produce on both coasts, especially in their home state of New York, and the midwest was generally dedicated to corn. If New York grew so many great items, why weren't these items more accessible? They began their research by interviewing Anna Lappe, founder of the "Small Plant institute," who explained that companies made more money if they took a produce item and "branded it" in order to charge more money. To sell just a carrot for example is too cheap but if they slice it and package it in a "kid-friendly" way, their profit margin in higher. It's not about health anymore; their focus is money. This is why the school system can't afford to provide all healthy options. Safiyeh and Sadie felt that good food should not be a luxury and that there has to be a way to incorporate nutrient-rich food into their school lunches. They began to search for local farmers and/or vendors in the city that sold locally grown produce, for example, green markets.
Their exploration continued with interview with the Chief Food administrator in charge of NYC public school lunches. He explained that after WWI, there was a nationwide movement to eat better. They began to revitalize food, especially in the schools. But in 1960, the focus became combating hunger instead of nutrition. They spoke about the differences between food now and food then. There was definitely more butter in past school lunches but more fried food and/or bigger portions now, totally over 1,100 calories (elementary school aged children daily intake should be around 1,400). The example provided of plans for what future school lunches will hopefully look like included smaller portions and more fruits and vegetables, cutting the calorie count practically in half. The Chief Food administrator also said that they serve almost 900,000 school lunches PER DAY. The cost for healthier food is much higher than it is for chicken nuggets, for example, and they are working to get more funding to support their healthier food efforts. So far, they have introduced salad bars in some schools that seem to be popular for students because it is fun and they can take ownership of their food. Most importantly, it is healthy and will hopefully be one step towards decreasing the portion of our nation's population with diabetes, which today is 20%.

Safiyeh and Sadie found some local "urban farmers" that grow and sell New York grown produce to neighborhood in Manhattan. After collecting some of this food, their final activity was to cook with some eco-chefs and show their friends and family how delicious healthy food can be in comparison with the convenience of detrimental fast food. Safiyeh's blood pressure even went down through this process, as her new eating habits made a difference. She was always of the appropriate weight but made these changes to ensure that her future was not in jeopardy. The proactive students' goal was to show how eating habits during childhood can lead to adulthood and that is where problems arise. Their next goal was to encourage more green markets in neighborhoods like Harlem. Speaking with the borough president of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, they expressed their concerns and he was able to lead them to certain green markets that they did not know about. By the end of their investigation, they were familiar with the neighborhoods that were selling locally grown produce and the neighborhoods that still needed some attention.

I admired the work that these two students did. Not only were they motivated by their health and the health of those around them but by the future as well. It is important to develop healthy habits now instead of relying on convenience. The next film was about how the farmers in our country are struggling and over 90% of them have another job in order to support their families. One particular quote from the beginning of the movie characterized our nation perfectly: "the only thing that Americans fear is inconvenience." That is why the fast food industry is booming and why levels of obesity have skyrocketed. Farmers cannot keep up as the demand for fresh produce is not as high. Also, they briefly spoke about the pesticides and chemicals that are necessary to prolong the "freshness" of the produce. But as Michael Pollan, author of 2 New York Times best-selling books about our nation's eating habits, pointed out, nature is not accustomed to everything of the same species growing together in one confined space. Nature thrives on a mix of things growing near each other and the mix of nutrients benefit all. Now, we grow the same item in one particular area just as we keep the same animals in one particular area. In order for those items to last longer in an environment in which they are surrounded by their own species, they must be treated with unnatural chemicals. If there was a mix, there would be no need for this type of outside help; nature would be able to sustain itself.

The above mentioned film was very informative but I definitely benefited more from the first one. It was so refreshing to see young members of the community taking action and fulfilling their curiosities. I am very interested in nutrition and promoting the healthy eating habits of my future students. The type of work that Sadie and Safiyeh did can be a great resource or serve as a motivating tool in any classroom. It is an inspiration for students and people of all ages to take action.

1 comment:

  1. just a few things I was wondering or wanted to share:

    How many residents of the South Bronx were in attendance?

    I had the opportunity to work at a camp this summer. The food was okay (with the exception of the ice cream snacks and other snacks that were served and some other things like very buttered pasta) but what really made the difference, I think, was that teachers ate with students. Everyday the students saw adults eating the same lunches, but adding vegetables and fruits. The kids too, started to want to add these foods to their own meals. Usually my lunch period was spent helping kids get cucumbers, carrots, salads and others. I don't think schools need to package these fruits and veggies, they need to be role models and just make them available. My students this summer were willing to eat shredded carrots instead of carrot sticks because they liked carrots so much.

    The other thing about these neighborhoods that really gets me is the food that is available. For example, the Pathmark grocery store on 125th street rarely had good looking produce, or produce sales. More frequently sale items were bagged snack foods, ice creams, frozen pizzas, Hot pockets, things that were prepackaged. Additionally in that neighborhood there are so many fast food places, I think on 125th street from Lexington avenue to the west side there are at least 5 Mc Donald's. Instead of having family owned restaurants, there are these fast food places everywhere.
    Additionally, the bodega's accept EBT food stamps. Families can use their food stamps to purchase common deli food- like sandwiches(including items heavy with mayo), sodas, and bagged snacks and ice creams. This doesn't seem right whenever families who use food stamps cannot purchase a rotisserie chicken or other hot or pre-prepared items at a regular grocery store. Additionally there are very few fruit and vegetable vendors, unlike other neighborhoods that have them on every corner.