By Teen Battle Chef High School Students Elizabeth Cordero-Hernandez, Joel Allette, and Lorenzo Gallese
Take the L train to the last stop in Brooklyn and you will find yourself in Canarsie. Formerly an Italian and Jewish enclave, it is now home to immigrants hailing from Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America. While some outer borough neighborhoods have seen exciting changes where new influxes ofpeople have created food, shopping and entertainment destinations, Canarsie by contrast has mostly seen little industry and poorer residents. As mom and pop businesses including larger supermarket chains have left the neighborhood; there has been a devastating effect on access to healthy food. Yes, Canarsie is a ‘food desert’ if you define the term as having few if any places to purchase a variety of fresh produce, whole grains, sustainably-raised meats and poultry and healthful snack options.
In 2012 the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council (ADADC) contracted Karp Resources to identify youth programs to engage in a ‘corner store makeover’ project. The idea was a youth-led project fueled with their energy, creativity and familiarity with their own community. FamilyCook Productions’s Teen Battle Chef program in HealthCorps schools in NYC was identified as a collaborator due to the high level of cooking skill and nutrition knowledge students in their programs gain, and the value of working within a national network of schools through HealthCorps.
FamilyCook and HealthCorps recommended Academy for Conservation and the Environment on the South Shore High School campus in Canarsie and their Coordinator, Courtland “C.K.” Kouassiaman, who delivered the HealthCorps program that includes Teen Battle Chef (TBC). From there, FCP recruited us - TBC Alumni who had previously been in the program in a HealthCorps school, to serve as mentors and role models to new TBC students at C.K.’s school. So that’s how it happened that myself and Teen Battle Chef Alums Joel Allette and Lorenzo Gallese helped to jumpstart the project that the ACE students named the “Canarsie Health Revolution” over the winter and spring of 2013.
Essentially it was a community outreach project to help the people of Canarsie, Brooklyn to see that there are more to snacks than potato chips. The project involved weekly meetings among the following key players: FamilyCook’s Youth Development Associate David Bartolomi and we three above-mentions TBC Alums, Karp Resources youth specialist Adam Liebowitz; C.K. the HealthCorps Coordinator at ACE and his TBC students. First we met with a similar team of youth in Williamsburg who were from Ecostation at an ADADC sponsored launch and we met some key players like Victor Lopes who would help the corner stores from a sourcing and merchandising perspective. We also learned about their “Fuel Up to Play 60” campaign that communicates the connection between healthy food and being active to youth.
The goal was not to change the store but to simply embrace options whether it was moving items to the front or to just put stickers indicating the healthy options. The TBC students also contributed ideas to new signage and ads for the project; they were photographed holding some of the healthy items for the ad campaign.
I have to say that our strategies of handing out small containers of yogurt, samples of our ‘Canarsie Special’ sandwich, and smoothies in front of the corner stores we worked with was fun and made all of us feel a bit like ‘rock stars’! People were not used to seeing teenagers as the messengers for health in their community and they were very polite to us and attentive. They also loved our food. By summer’s end, we had exciting positive feedback from the store owners, especially Orlando, who described how the project seemed to encourage customers to ask him to stock specific items like organic eggs. When he did, he sold out! Clearly an empowerment among the community to ask for what they want is being fostered. Shoppers outside of the supermarket where we were stationed always asked us when we would be coming back. The consistency of the day helped bring them back to do their weekly shopping when our team would be outside with samples of healthy food options available. We began to see repeat customers, which was very exciting.
More importantly, the community came to see us as a knowledgeable culinary resource; they began looking to us to demonstrate healthy meals they could cook from food available at the store. You could say that from healthy snack focus turned into a full blown ‘shopping makeover’ opportunity with our TBCs being asked for recipe suggestions for things like veggies and fish, which we would write down the recipe and ingredients and then they would shop for them!
In addition to these observations, we also conducted surveys of the residents and learned that all the people surveyed were interested in buying healthier options whether they knew they were there beforehand or not and they were willing to pay for them – average of $5 for healthier snacks which, as students, we thought was a lot of money and kind of surprising! We also learned that they were quite knowledgeable about the foods that support their health – whole grains, beans, fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, organic and/or lean meats – came up over and over again in our survey about what items they would like to see available. If people are informed enough to know the good options, then it seems only fair that they are available for them to buy.
All in all, it was exciting to be a part of this project – we all felt that we had a real impact on the residents of Canarsie and that our efforts were appreciated. We are excited to see if there are other indicators like sales data that will support our affirmation that our efforts were effective. Based on our own research and the faces of the TBC youth and their ‘customers’ outside the stores, this was a successful project worth examining for its future potential, especially building onto similar projects that our NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene have been conducting.