By Amanda Staab
Most people who immigrate to the United States come seeking a better life, but a group of young newcomers in the Bronx are finding that some things were better back home in Central America.
“All the food that my mother used to cook over there, everything was fresh,” said Maria Mota, who explained that it is quite common for homes in the Dominican Republic to have their own fruit and vegetable gardens. “Here, we have to go to the supermarket.” And there, she said, the produce can be many days and thousands of miles from the soil where it was grown.
That’s one of the issues Mota and five fellow seniors at Bronx International High School in Morrisania are currently exploring in a city-run internship program that aims at helping teens learn more about getting healthy food in their new country.
Learn It, Grow It, Eat It, is run by the Council on the Environment of New York City. It replaces regularly scheduled classes every Friday, when students meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the project director, David Saphire.
“The food that is brought to New York comes from far away,” said senior Juan Carlos Vasquez, who immigrated four years ago, “so it loses vitamins.” In the Bronx, more specifically, it is sometimes even more difficult to find vitamin-rich foods, as most of the grocery stores are bodegas with limited selections.
Shoppers, however, can get fresher, locally grown food at the Greenmarket near Lincoln Hospital, where the students recently filmed a short public service announcement explaining how to use food stamps at farmers’ markets. Mota, who’s been in this country seven years — the longest of anyone in the group – narrated the video in both English and Spanish, while two other girls in the program, Nioluis Vargas and Patricia De La Rosa, acted out a purchase with an EBT card. When the video is ready, it could either appear on a local cable TV station or on the council’s web site.
The kids said it’s important to let people in the Bronx know that they can, in fact, get better produce, even if they are on food stamps.“Even though they want to, they don’t know they can buy fresh fruits from the Greenmarket,” said De La Rosa. The students prefer the Greenmarket, they said, because it carries many of the foods they recognize.
They also recently finished getting plots in three separate community gardens ready for the winter. They’ve spent weeks weeding out what remains of the last harvest and planting garlic, activities that they said remind them of their chores back home. “I used to do it in my home country,” said Vasquez, who also volunteered to do a little landscaping when a few branches on a tree in one of the gardens needed trimming.
Now that the weather has changed, the students have retreated to a classroom at the council’s headquarters on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Sitting at a long table flanked by overflowing bookshelves, they took a closer look at their eating and drinking habits, decoding the nutrition labels of some of their favorite foods.
“They’re trying to make it seem like this is a very healthy drink, but if you look at the very small print here, it says 30 percent juice,” said Saphire, holding up an empty bottle with pictures of fruit on its label. The other 70 percent, the students quickly guessed correctly, is sugar and water.
Saphire got out a box of sugar, a teaspoon, and a plastic drinking cup to demonstrate exactly how much sugar that would be. The students said that discovery has been the most surprising so far.
“I was consuming a lot of sugar,” said Vasquez, who had returned from his lunch run with only a stack of cheese to eat. “I’m trying to change my diet to something different because I have seen the stuff I am eating is not healthy for me.” His teacher joked that he could start by eating dairy products in moderation.
In addition to showing the students exactly how much sugar they could be drinking on a daily basis and emphasizing a balance in diet, Saphire also interjected tidbits of business theory. He explained that soda manufacturers often use high-fructose corn syrup, thought by some to lead to diabetes, instead of sugar because it’s cheaper. It also has a longer shelf life.
When the topic moved on to fast food, the kids were not surprised to learn that fresh fruit and vegetables are probably healthier than what they admitted was their favorite American cuisine, McDonald’s.
“It’s like something magic that makes it taste good,” said Vargas, who came to New York from Honduras four years ago. That “magic,” Saphire explained, is really all the salt, fat, and sugar. He has developed a McDonald’s IQ test that most of his students, and many adults, fail.
“Sometimes, things are very deceiving there,” said Saphire. “You think your common sense tells you which has the most fat, and then you’re wrong.” One surprise: the deluxe warm cinnamon roll has more trans fat than a double quarter pounder with cheese.
De La Rosa was very surprised by the sodium in ketchup, 110 mg per packet – a third of the salt in a large order of fries.
“I can’t live without ketchup,” she said. Last year, she used to go to McDonald’s with her friends every Friday after school, but this year, she’s already cut back to “sometimes.”
The point of the exercise, said Saphire, is not to scare the kids away from McDonald’s. “I’m not here to say, ‘Don’t go to McDonald’s,’ ” he said, “but I want them, when they are going to go, to get a sense of what they are eating.”
Saphire is an environmental scientist, not a nutritionist, but since he helped start the educational program six years ago, he’s become more knowledgeable and wants his students to know the difference between natural and processed foods. “It’s more like what does a reasonably intelligent person need to know to make an informed decision,” he said.
In addition to their lessons in nutrition, the students also sometimes get a bit of an English tutorial, covering forgotten and new words alike. In a recent week, words of the day were sausage, dilution, and bootleg. “It’s part of what I try to do also, build up certain vocabulary, whatever comes up,” said Saphire. In turn, the kids, he said, have inspired him to take a Spanish class.
When they have finally mastered the basics in food, the students plan to also offer a class for fellow students back at the high school and, maybe, other city schools.
“They don’t know what they are doing to themselves,” said Mota, “like the way that they eat, the type of food that they eat, so they are getting sick and stuff like that. So, we’re trying to tell them how to read the labels, so they know how many calories and how many teaspoons of sugar they are putting in their bodies.”
The students are also happy to expand their sphere of influence. “It’s not just helping in one place,” said Vasquez. “We are going to help many people.”
The program is also not only about food. After finding a broomstick and a tennis ball in one of the gardens, Saphire taught the kids an old American pastime, stickball. “We don’t have the tennis ball anymore,” said Vasquez, who immediately let out a laugh and confessed he was the one who lost it.
The internship coordinator at the Bronx International High School, Deo Persaud, said that it’s good for the kids to get out of the traditional classroom. “We are giving them the opportunity to develop job skills and also get a feel for the work environment before they graduate high school,” he said. The Bronx International High School, part of the Morris High School campus, serves approximately 360 students, many of whom will enter the workforce right after graduation, said Persaud.
All the students in the Learn It, Grow It, Eat It internship program said they plan to go to college, but not to study something food-related, they said — instead, they’ll look for something “money-related.”