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Research at Montefiore seeks to advance treatment of pancreatic cancer

Research at Montefiore seeks to advance treatment of pancreatic cancer

By: Mehroz Baig

Ron, a 79-year-old Bronx man, remembers the day a CAT scan revealed something was seriously wrong with his health.

“While the tech was doing the scan, she had this look on her face,” he said. “She said, ‘excuse me,’ and went and got the doctor.” The scan  eventually showed he had developed pancreatic cancer.

Ron asked for his last name to be withheld because he hasn’t told much of his family or his friends that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2010 and he doesn’t want them to worry.

Ron is a small figure who walks fast wearing a white, short-brimmed hat covering a head of light gray hair and a black sports jacket. His health has put many restraints on his life: as he puts it, his plumbing isn’t what it used to be. But he maintains a sense of humor. He talks about the nurses who take care of him and says that he likes to joke with them.

“They feel bad for everyone that has to be treated,” he says. “When I kid around, you get a rapport with them, you become friends.”

Pancreatic cancer can occur in two forms: one attacks the part of the pancreas that creates enzymes which make regulatory hormones, like insulin to control glucose levels in blood, explains Dr. Steven Libutti, director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care. This cancer is called pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer.  This is is the kind of cancer that Ron has. The second form of pancreatic cancer is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which attacks the part of the pancreas responsible for helping the body digest foods. Adenocarcinoma occurs more frequently and is more deadly.

“Life expectancy for pancreatic adenocarcinomas is often measured in months whereas life expectancy for pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma can be measured in years,” Libutti said.

Libutti , who is also associate director for clinical services at the Albert Einstein Cancer Center, says that although pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer is less prevalent, it is increasing.

“Part of it may be we have better means of diagnosing or detecting them and part of it may be that they actually are increasing in incidence,” Libutti said.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2010, there were approximately 43,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer in the United States. That same year, there were 36,800 deaths by pancreatic cancer in the U.S. The data was not split between the two types of pancreatic cancers. According to the New York State Department of Health, there were 2,768 cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 2007. That same year in New York, there were 2,280 deaths from pancreatic cancer.

Libutti is heading the most recent venture in cancer treatment and detection at Montefiore and Albert Einstein Cancer Center. Through a partnership with four other institutions in Texas, Libutti and his team applied for a grant from the National Cancer Institute to research the use of nanotechnology to diagnose and treat pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer and ovarian cancer. In September, the team was granted a $16 million, five-year grant to pursue this technology.

Nanoparticles are tiny particles, smaller than the diameter of a human hair. “The idea is that nanomedicines can be engineered to have unique properties that might allow them to help in the development of therapeutics that can be targeted to tumors as opposed to having a general effect on the entire body,” Libutti said.

Imagine a cancer tumor having a zip code, Libutti says. His goal with this research is to design an agent that can read that zip code. Once the agent is injected into the body, it would go directly to the zip code where the tumor lives. Once that is accomplished, the agent can be sent with medicine to kill the tumor or some other substance that would allow doctors to see the tumor more clearly.

Currently, there are various treatment options for people who are diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer: surgery is usually the first option. If a person is not able to have surgery, either due to medical conditions or because the patient chooses not to, other options include octreotide injections or sunitinib pills, both medicines that slow the growth of neuroendocrine tumors. “Traditional chemotherapy doesn’t work for endocrine cancers,” Libutti said.

Libutti points out that the concept for this research is not new. Doctors use iodine, for example, to diagnose and treat thyroid cancer. There isn’t a naturally occurring substance that responds to pancreatic cancer tumors the way iodine does to thyroid cancer. Libutti’s research aims to fill that void by creating something that will serve the same purpose that iodine does for thyroid cancer.

Dr. Steven Libutti in Lab

Steven K. Libutti, director of Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care, is investigating nanoparticles for imaging and treating pancreatic tumors as part of a national five-institution research project funded by the NCI. Pictured in the lab with Dr. Libutti is Mijung Kwon, a senior scientist at Einstein. (Photo Credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine)

Libutti says that if the research is successful, his team could have a working form of nanomedicine ready to use in seven to ten years. Although the Einstein-Montefiore investigators are focusing on the pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, the research could produce a substance that would also be useful for pancreatic adenocarcinoma as well as ovarian cancer.  These cancers are not linked but they were chosen because of the expertise and interests of the investigating teams.

“My question would be, is this something that they’d be able to detect early?” asked Kristen Angell, affiliate coordinator at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s chapter in Connecticut. Angell’s father was diagnosed with the deadly pancreatic adenocarcinoma in April of last year and was given a year to live. Angell was her father’s caretaker during the last year of his life and says that early detection of adenocarcinoma is crucial to fighting this disease.

Angell points to the progress that’s been made in breast cancer and says she hopes the same efforts can be directed towards pancreatic cancer.

In the meantime, Ron continues his treatment with Dr. Libutti. Although he hadn’t felt too much pain in the beginning, he says he recently started getting an ache on the right side of his body, which he hopes to address with the nurse the next time he is at the hospital. Ron’s pancreatic tumors have spread to his liver, and while the treatment is meant to slow their growth, it is too early to tell what, if any progress has been made.

Since October 2010, Ron has been going to Montefiore for blood work every two weeks, a shot every month, and periodic CAT scans. Having survived a heart attack, prostate cancer seventeen years ago, and now living with a pacemaker, Ron simply did not think that he could survive a major cancer surgery and opted for the second treatment option of monthly injections that slow the growth of the cancerous tumors.

“I’m like an old car,” he jokes.

Ron has found ways to cope with his health: he maintains a strict diet, donates to children’s organizations and prays.

“I got to church a lot,” Ron says, “more so in the last couple of years when my health started deteriorating. I’ve lived my life. I want to live more but it’s in God’s hands.”

(Click on the interactive below to see pancreatic cancer cases and deaths for all five New York boroughs from 1976 to 2007.)

Posted in Former Featured, Front Page, HealthComments (0)

Last center standing

Inside the Morris Heights Birthing Pavilion, women give birth naturally. Photos courtesy of Morris Heights.

The Morris Heights Birthing Pavilion is one of the last few places in New York City where women have a real chance to labor naturally. Photos: Courtesy of Morris Heights Health Center

It was 9 a.m., on a cold November Monday, and the Morris Heights birthing center—one of only two free-standing clinics left in New York City—was buzzing.

Inside, three women were in the throes of labor, each in a private suite with a queen-size bed and home-like touches, including quilts, fluffy pillows, and cabinets.

As their births proceeded, two certified midwives shuttled back and forth, slipping behind spearmint-colored doors. They checked heart rates every half an hour, suggested position changes to alleviate pain, and helped the women in and out of their Jacuzzi tubs.

When the day was done, three healthy babies were born.

The scene seems timeless, and perhaps unremarkable. But in New York City, where the rate of births by Ceasarean section rose by 42 percent between 1998 and 2007, giving birth without medical intervention is increasingly rare. The Morris Heights Women’s Health and Birthing Pavilion is now an endangered species.

“Women’s labors can slow down when they get to the hospital, because they don’t feel particularly safe,” said Jennifer Jagger, a midwife who has worked part-time at the Bronx center for the past two years. “When they get to the hospital—boom!—it’s about what the hospital needs.”

There are currently just under 200 freestanding birth centers in the United States, centers not attached to a hospital that offer a homelike environment.  These are staffed by midwives who help low-risk women deliver naturally, free from medical interventions like inducement, Caesarian sections, or epidurals. Supporters of the natural-birth movement believe it is a better experience both physically and emotionally for mother and child.

Of the 175 some birthing centers in this country, a significant percentage are located in the suburbs. Jagger said she often tells her Bronx patients they’re getting a service that’s normally available only in wealthier, non-urban areas.

“There’s some truth to that,” admitted Ronnie Lichtman, chair of the Midwifery Education Program at the Downstate Medical Center in New York City. “In general, middle class, educated women are more aware of the options available to them and more assertive in seeking them out.”

But the irony is that in wealthier pockets of New York City, birthing centers have closed up shop over the years due, Lichtman said, to a variety of factors—budget shortfalls, management problems, and a medical approach that has made birthing a sickness, rather than a natural process.

Last year, a nonprofit group attempted to raise funds for an independent health and birthing center in Midtown Manhattan, near Macy’s.

The group had secured much of its funding and had put together a high-profile board of directors that included Ricki Lake, the talk show host turned-natural birthing advocate who, thanks to her 2008 pro-natural birth documentary “The Business of Being Born,” has become the poster mom for midwife-assisted labor.

But with the recession, Lichtman said the new center’s efforts were “stymied.” Investors dropped out and the center never opened. And several established centers have faltered as well.

In 2003, the Elizabeth Seaton Birthing Center—which was associated with St. Vincent’s hospital and was this country’s first birthing center—closed along with the hospital. Last September, Bellevue Hospital shuttered its birthing center as well.

The closing of these centers prompted New York City Council’s Committees on Health and Women’s Issues to host a joint oversight hearing on the status of birthing options in New York City earlier this fall.

Advocates who testified in the hearing argued that birth centers are key in helping to lower the cesarean section rate. Patients in natural centers are not hooked up to fetal monitoring machines, which frees them up to move around. Proponents of this approach say it gives women a better chance at laboring naturally, as it uses gravity to help the baby navigate the pelvis.

Low-risk mothers whose babies were delivered by certified professional midwives had significantly lower rates of Caesarean surgery—4 percent—than those delivered in hospitals—19 percent,  said Farrah Diaz-Tello, a lawyer with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, citing a recent study.

Currently, only three birthing centers remain in New York City—the in-hospital center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt, the Brooklyn Birthing Center, and Morris Heights. The former is the sole facility that caters directly to low-income women, which it does by accepting Medicaid and helping those who don’t have insurance to get it.

“The only time we won’t accept a patient is if someone starts their prenatal care really late—our cut off is after seven months,” said Susan Billinghurst, a clinical manager at the center. “Otherwise, we accept anyone here.”

Indeed, the difficulty isn’t turning patients away, but it’s in attracting the attention of pregnant moms in the first place. 

“One of the biggest challenges is trying to find the time and help them learn and understand what a birth center is and how it works,” said Kristin Paul, midwife. “Many of them come here without necessarily being aware of what the potential benefits to an out-of-hospital setting are.”

To achieve that goal, the center conducts classes for new patients about the benefits of a non-hospital birth—more support, more time to labor naturally, and a judicial use of technology.

Jagger, the part-time midwife, added that there are certain immigrant populations in the neighborhood that seek out the center because laboring naturally is customary for them culturally.

“I’m thinking in particular of Mexican immigrant women,” she said. “There are a lot of them in this neighborhood and they tend to labor naturally out of habit—out of custom. They do it extremely well.”

But for all of that effort, deliveries still represent only a small percent of what the pavilion’s business. It also offers full-spectrum gynecological and women’s health care.

Indeed, of the 2,000 or so prenatal clients that visit the facility every year, Billinghurst estimates that 70 percent are not candidates for the birthing center. Only low-risk women are approved for a center delivery, which eliminates anyone with medical conditions like high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes—conditions that are rampant in the South Bronx.

Of the remaining 30 percent of clients who come in for prenatal care, only about 60 to 100 actually end up delivering in the birthing center every year.  Some are unable to because of restrictions the center imposes. For example, a woman who plans to birth at the center, but fails to go into active labor within 12 hours of her water breaking is transferred to a hospital, as is a woman who goes two weeks past her due date.

But other women simply opt not to have a birthing center birth, choosing instead to deliver at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, Central Bronx, or one of the other nearby hospitals.

“It’s not easy to get women to be confident that they don’t need an epidural,” Paul explained, “or to be OK with their choice when everyone around them is going into the hospital to give birth.”

Because of the relatively low number of babies delivered, the center relies heavily on revenue generated from other services, like general obstetrics and gynelocgical care to stay afloat. Billinghurst said that some salaries at the center are covered by federal and state grants, but that the bulk of the money comes from billing patients or insurance. There is no set fee for services; the staff works with patients and insurance companies to charge rates according to what they can afford.

And the center also benefits from the fact that non-invasive births are relatively low cost.

In testimony from the September City Council hearing, Diaz-Tello, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women lawyer, cited a 2005 study that found that the national average hospital charge for childbirth ranged from $7,000 to $16,000, whereas a birth center delivery was about $1,600.

But that is true of all birthing centers, and yet Morris Heights is one of the few that thrives.

Billinghurst said that the real reason why the center has continued to succeed where so many others have failed is that it has been in the neighborhood “forever” and has built up a real trust. Women whose mothers, sisters, cousins or friends delivered in the center know they can go there and have the experience that they want, in a private comfortable room instead of in a shared room in a hospital.

“I recently had the privilege of delivering the baby of a 20-year-old first-time mom who was born at the center herself,” said Jagger. “There’s a community here that has been here for a long time.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Southern BronxComments (0)

For immigrant Mexican mothers, obesity is a new threat to their children’s health

Seven-year-old Mileidy Merino waits for her mother, Araceli, to  finish dinner.

Seven-year-old Mileidy Merino waits for her mother, Araceli, to finish dinner. Photo by Irasema Romero

The small rural town of Tecamtalan is covered with natural colors. They are the colors of acres of harvested land, where food like tomatoes, watermelons, peanuts, beans and corn dot the central Mexican state of Puebla. These are the lands where only three years ago Sindy Cecilio, then 10 years old, climbed up and down wooden ladders picking plums from their trees. Agriculture was a family business. The Cecilio family sold fresh produce in a market 15 minutes north of their home.

The fresh air and open spaces are a contrast to the life she now leads as a seventh grader at M.S. 328 in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. Gone are the afternoons playing and running in open fields or the Saturday mornings helping her father in the harvest. Now instead of selling food in the market, she accompanies her mother Araceli Merino to buy fruits and vegetables twice a week from the small Green Cart that parks on West 231st Street and Kingsbridge Avenue.

Keeping her three children healthy is important to Merino, a stay-at-home mother, because she knows it is easier for them to gain weight now that their new lifestyle requires less physical work than what children are used to doing in Mexico. That’s true for her as well. In Mexico, she had to wash clothes by hand, one piece at a time. Today she just goes to the laundromat down the street.

For evidence of how their new lifestyle has influenced her children’s health, Merino has only to look at her. Last September, Mileidy’s doctor told Merino that the little girl needed to lose 12 pounds.

“In Mexico children eat but at least they go out and walk, run and play outside,” said Merino in the hallway of the family’s two-bedroom apartment.

Unlike her sister, Mileidy did not experience the active lifestyle helping in the field.  Merino said that other than weekends when the weather is warm and they go to Van Cortlandt Park, the children spend their free time at home. And because P.S. 207 is only a few buildings south from their Godwin Terrace ground-floor apartment, Mileidy’s physical activity is limited to a school dance class once a week.

Forty-six percent of Hispanic children across the New York City public school system are overweight or obese, according to a recent study released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mileidy has become part of this statistic after living in the Bronx for three years. This weight gain may be influenced by her family’s adjustment to a new lifestyle because in Puebla, physical activity and healthy eating were rooted in their livelihood.

Mileidy's family moved to the Bronx three years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Irasema Romero.

Mileidy's family moved to the Bronx three years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Irasema Romero

The U.S. Census estimates there are 282,965 Mexicans living in New York City, with nearly half originating from Puebla, a state known for its agricultural richness.

While the weight gain for recent immigrants may seem relatively small, public health experts worry that it’s an indicator of bigger problems to come.

As children become accustomed to the American culture, their body mass index levels increase. The National Council of La Raza released in November their latest installment of a 12-part series titled Profiles of Latino Health: A Closer Look at Latino Childhood Nutrition, which indicates that “first-generation immigrant children were significantly less likely (24.6%) than second-generation children (U.S.-born children of immigrant parents) (32.1%) and third-generation children (U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents) (31.7%) to be overweight or obese.” In the Cecilio family, those statistics translate into the fact that one of the four children is experiencing weight issues.

Merino attributes her daughter’s weight gain to her diet both at home and at school, which serves pizza for lunch every Friday. Since September, she has tried to make the meals at home healthier. She stopped making spaghetti, which they ate at least once or twice a week. She returned to caldo de pollo (chicken soup), cemitas (a sandwich specialty from Puebla) and the traditional mole poblano.

“They used to eat a lot before,” said adding that she has now restricted Mileidy from eating her favorite evening snack: Mexican white cheese with sour cream.  After 6 p.m., the family is now only eating healthy snacks like oranges and Mileidy’s favorite fruit, the mango. Before that, they were having a full meal right after school and again at around 8 p.m.

The second grader has since lost three pounds and her mother keeps working for more.  Merino said she will continue buying fresh fruit from the Green Cart and going to a live poultry shop called a vivero on 231st Street and Broadway. She said she does not buy prepackaged poultry or meat from the supermarket because she is used to growing chicken in her home in Puebla.

“I think it’s because they spend more time in the supermarket, and in the viveros you can buy them the way you like them,” said of her interest in keeping her Mexican customs and not buying frozen food.

According to Andrew Rundle, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, her desire to buy fresh fruit from farmer’s markets and poultry from viveros is consistent with what his team found in recent studies of health-conscious New York immigrants.

In his interviews with 350 Hispanic immigrant women about what makes food healthy, the majority suggested they want to know where the food comes from and they like to be able to choose the meat or poultry they want. These women did not use terms like gluten-free or organic, which in local supermarkets can mean a higher cost in food, to describe their nutritional choices.

The idea of healthy food originated in the lifestyle of their native Latin American countries, but also echo the slow food movement that started in Italy, Rundle said.

The slow food movement was established in 1986 as an alternative to fast food, suggesting a need for fresh and organic food that is not altered for faster growth.

“This is an idea that is seen as very elitist, yet these women who are immigrants and live in poor areas have these ideas and attitudes that are very familiar to slow foods,” said Rundle, adding that the women in the study perceived the dirt on the vegetables they buy at farmers’ markets as an indicator of freshness.

This principle of freshness is valued among other Poblano immigrants in the Bronx who are used to eating organic produce their family harvested. At the age of 22, Ines Juarez moved to the Bronx from a small town in the mountains of the Mexican state of Puebla, where her family planted corn, oranges, and bananas in the fields adjacent to their home.

“[In Mexico] things are more natural,” Juarez said speaking of the fruits and vegetables she now tries to buy for her family. “Here they regularly have to have chemicals to help them grow faster for production.”

Her two boys, who are also students at P.S. 207, did not get to experience that rustic lifestyle in her native Mexico, where she woke up to the sound of roosters and chickens. In contrast, Jonathan, 9, and six-year-old Bryant’s childhood experiences are limited to the busy city streets surrounding their Bailey Street apartment, where the #1 train rushes through in the background and honking cars crowd the nearby Major Deegan Expressway.

Juarez tries to continue the customs she learned in Puebla, where the women in the family would spend time making food from scratch, including rolling and pounding on dough to make corn and flour tortillas. Food was not purchased in cans or packaged to last for weeks. If they wanted something sweet to drink, they would pick oranges from the ground near the fruit trees around their home and have freshly squeezed orange juice.

They rarely watched television because they were busy harvesting the field and tending to the chickens and turkeys the family grew.

When the children were not going to school or helping the family, they had lots of room to run and play, Juarez added. Because other family members lived nearby, it was easier for children to go out with relatives without worrying about where they were.

Although she still makes tortillas from scratch and stays away from canned food because her family doesn’t like the taste, Juarez believes Jonathan is about five to 10 pounds over his healthy weight.

But as a first-generation Mexican immigrant, the factors influencing Jonathan’s weight may be defined by his mother’s struggle to maintain hints of a Poblano lifestyle while not limiting her children’s American experience.

“Their friends bring snacks to school and they want some,” said Juarez. Often, Jonathan and Bryant are asking for cookies and chips. “I tell them ‘no’ because it’s not as healthy and they don’t need it…But it’s difficult to limit so many things.”

Arminda Muñoz took her three children to Fitness Fun Day at M.S. 45 to help her 11-year-old son Jeffrey stay active. Photo by Irasema Romero

Arminda Muñoz took her three children to Fitness Fun Day at M.S. 45 to help her 11-year-old son Jeffrey stay active. Photo by Irasema Romero

Juarez’ children are easily tempted by snacks from the bodegas surrounding their school. According to “Disparities in the Food Environments of New York City Public Schools,” another study completed by Dr. Rundle and his team, there are on average 10 bodegas within a 400-meter radius of New York City public schools.

Even though Juarez, who is a stay-at-home mother, tries to maintain a healthy diet, other Mexican immigrants may not be as aware of the low nutritional value of processed food.

In the 2009 study “Moving to the Land of Milk and Cookies: Obesity among the children of immigrants,” Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, and her team followed approximately 20,000 children from kindergarten through 8th grade and found that 40 percent of first-generation Hispanic children are overweight or obese by the time they get to eighth grade. About two-thirds of Hispanic children in the study were of Mexican descent.

She said that immigrant parents may not understand the significance of childhood obesity because it may not have been a major problem in their native countries. Even in the U.S., it has only become an issue in the last 10 to 20 years.

Van Hook said that children in the study whose parents come from the poorest countries had the highest obesity rates.

“The idea of dieting, the idea of exercising… is probably foreign to a lot of these people coming from pretty rural areas of Mexico and agricultural backgrounds, especially if parents grew up in situations where they did not have enough,” Van Hook said.

Although Puebla has a prominent agricultural economy, it is still one of the poorest states in Mexico. CONEVAL, Mexico’s council for the evaluation of economic development reported in August 2010 that over 61 percent of youth in Puebla live in conditions of poverty. In all, over half of Puebla’s five million residents live in poverty.

Children in Mexico who live in rural areas are thinner than those who live in urban areas of Mexico, said Van Hook, which suggests that a higher income does not translate to a healthier lifestyle.

“There’s more opportunities to go out to dinner and to eat more, and to eat more sort of non-traditional preprocessed foods when you live in an urban area,” she said adding that immigrant families who have gained a level of financial stability in the United States are also still at risk of gaining weight.

Although family economics may be better than when they arrived to the Bronx almost 10 years ago, Juarez rarely eats out, and instead takes her children to Van Cortlandt Park on the weekends She said she tries to keep the children as physically active as possible even if it’s inside the house.

Sixty minutes of daily physical activity are recommended for children, but, according to the New York City Department of Education, only 40 percent of the city’s six- to 12-year-olds achieves it. The department’s 2009 Child Health Survey suggests that one in every 10 children did not get even one hour of physical activity outside of school the week before the survey was administered.

Romero_article 4_children

Jeffrey Muñoz plays games at Fitness Fun Day in October. Photo by Irasema Romero

With the goal of providing fun alternatives to exercise, Manhattan-based USA Fitness Corps partnered with Thomas C. Giordano Middle School in the Bronx to offer Fun Fitness Day this past October.

Jaci Van Heest, a professor of kinesiology and child psychology at the University of Connecticut, designed the workout for the event using traditional activities and modifying them with fun new elements. For example, the simple act of kicking a soccer ball incorporates body movements to increase physical activity as children participate in a circle.

“If you use the word exercise, it conjures up images and feelings that are typically negative – work, sweat, sore, not fun,” Van Heest said. “If adults think that, why would children think or say anything different?”

Seventh grader and Puebla native Jeffrey Munoz enjoyed playing Van Heest’s modified soccer version as he gathered with other children in the southeast corner of the M.S. 45 Doc Serpone playground on East 189th Street and Lorillard Place.

The session was led by a group of retired veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Jeffrey watched the ball closely to kick it during his turn. When it went out of bounds, he took a breather, bending down and restings his left elbow on his knee.

The 11-year-old said that sometimes he does not get a chance to play soccer, his favorite sport, with his friends because they don’t want to go out a play.

“My dad told me that I needed to lose weight because I’m getting a little fat,” Jeffrey added.  “It makes me feel like he wants me to exercise.”

Jeffrey, who moved to the U.S. with his family five years ago, is now 10 pounds over his healthy weight, said his mother Arminda Muñoz.  “He likes to exercise but he also eats a lot,” Munoz said of her son, who also watches at least two hours of television each day. “I want him to get healthy because he’s at risk of having diabetes and other health problems.”

A doctor advised Jeffrey to lose weight earlier in the semester and Muñoz now wants her two younger children to learn the value of being healthy and staying active.  That’s why she brought her children to the fitness session at Jeffrey’s Mott Haven middle school.

Principal Annamaria Giordano said the school decided to become the first to offer Fitness Fun Day in the Bronx as a way to provide school families resources to fight childhood obesity.

“The small steps are perfect because they lead to the big steps,” she said of that Saturday’s two-hour activity series. “We are trying to ensure that our children are healthy and fit. Our small part can help a child or two or more.

Van Heest said Fun Fitness Days strives to change the perception of exercise for the over 100 schoolchildren who participated. The next time they have the opportunity to be active, she hopes they will bring back the memory of “the last time I had fun.”

Similarly, parents like Merino, Juarez, and Muñoz rely on memories of the Puebla they left behind to continue influencing their children’s diet and exercise habits. Their children may grow up as Americans but they each strive to preserve the best of what their families experienced in Mexico – if only for the sake of their children’s health.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Education, Health, Northwest BronxComments (0)

Bronx food stamp recipients say no to ban on sugary drinks

Bronx food stamp recipients say no to ban on sugary drinks

At some Bronx grocery stores, drinks like Coca-Cola Classic, Fanta Orange, Nestea and Seagram’s Ginger Ale are cheaper than water. A recent weekly special at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood offered five 1.5-liter bottles of Coca-Cola for $5, while advertising the same-sized bottles of Poland Spring water for $7.45.

The incentive to buy drinks that promote obesity and diabetes can be seen and heard loud and clear on the supermarket shelves in the Bronx.

Sugary drinks on sale at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Sugary drinks on sale at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson want to discourage people — that is, poor people — from consuming too much sugar, by banning food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy certain sugary drinks.

Many Bronx residents believe this effort unfairly targets the poor, and worry about what’s next on the mayor’s hit list.

“If you drink too much of anything it’s not a good thing,” said Irving Scott, a Bronx carpenter, who receives food stamps and believes he’s responsible enough to moderate his own behavior. “Let people have the freedom to buy what they want.”

Outside a Fine Fare Supermarket in Hunts Point, another construction worker said the proposal felt like discrimination. “I think we should be able to have the same benefits as everyone else,” said Richard Cruz, who also relies on food stamps. “We aren’t even able to get hot sandwiches right now; they have to be cold.”

On Arthur Avenue, Virginia Martinez, who uses her food stamps to buy soda, found the proposal invasive. “Bloomberg is over-doing it,” she said.

“This time it’s soda – what’s next?”

Under the two-year plan, food stamp recipients would not be able use their electronic benefit transfer cards – the card recipients use to buy subsidized food – to buy drinks that contain more than the equivalent of one packet of table sugar in a 12-ounce serving. The only exceptions would be milk products, milk substitutes and fruit juices without any added sugar.

“The [food stamp] program has always excluded certain categories of products without nutritional value – like cigarettes and alcohol – and we believe that a strong case can be made for adding sugary drinks to that list,” Bloomberg said.

Many New York City residents are asking how far is too far, but particularly in the Bronx, where according to the U.S. Census, nearly one-quarter of Bronx residents received food stamps in 2007.

If approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, food stamp recipients in New York City could not use their benefits to buy sugary drinks. Other items already excluded from the food stamp program, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, include tobacco, liquor, vitamins, medicine, pet food, paper products, hot food and household supplies.

This proposal is not the first time elected officials have tried to block access to sugary drinks. In 2004, the Minnesota Department of Human Services asked the United States Department of Agriculture to ban sugary drinks and candy from food stamp purchases. The federal agency rejected the proposal, claiming it would cause customer stigma at supermarket cash registers and the belief that low-income people do not buy nutritious foods.

According to the department of agriculture, research showed that food stamp recipients are wise shoppers and their nutrient intakes are similar to those of higher income consumers.

In a related attempt earlier this year in New York, Gov. Paterson pushed for a penny-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks to help narrow the state’s $9.2 billion budget gap, but lawmakers eventually slashed the proposal from the revenue bill after the New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes released series of unrelenting anti-tax ads. One of the ads featured a woman saying, “Tell Albany to trim their budget fat, and leave our grocery budgets alone.”

Now Bloomberg and Paterson are preparing for round two – this time with a proposal that applies to only food stamp recipients in New York City.

“There’s no denying that childhood obesity is an epidemic, and there’s no denying that it’s hurting our children in low-income communities the most,” said Bloomberg. “Eliminating these beverages from allowable food stamp purchases would give New York families millions of more dollars to spend on food and drinks that provide real nourishment to them and their children.”

Unlike the Minnesota plan, the current proposal focuses only on sugary drinks, not both candy and sugary drinks. But health officials say it is enough to put a dent in sugary drink sales, especially those coming from food stamp users.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, $75 million to $135 million in nutrition assistance benefits were spent on sugary drinks in New York City last year.

Many store owners and managers, some of whom are just starting to rebound from the recession, are concerned their sales will drop if the ban goes into effect.

Wally Hassen, the manager at Day & Night Deli Grocery in Little Italy, said his store makes about $700 a week from sugary drinks, and most of his customers use food stamps.

“It’s going to affect the small businesses,” Hassen said. “They [the government] are not fixing the economy like that.”

Spokespeople for the department of health and mental hygiene would not comment on whether a plan is in place to reimburse small businesses for sales lost because of the ban.

A statement issued by the American Beverage Association, the trade association representing companies that manufacture and distribute non-alcoholic drinks, criticized the proposal saying it is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it.

Carl Smith, a food stamp user who was recently shopping with his wife at a Key Food Supermarket on Westchester Avenue, said the ban would affect what drinks he buys.

“I won’t be able to buy it [soda] because I have no money,” Smith said. “I think it’s stupid. We should be allowed to buy food.”

Carl’s wife, Lori, said she buys four cases of soda a month, and Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Sprite are among her favorites. She, too, thinks the ban goes too far.

“What’s next? Coffee?” she asked.

Although the proposal has many Bronxites fired-up, it is part of a larger citywide effort to fight obesity and Type 2 diabetes, two conditions exacerbated by eating or drinking too much sugar.

A 2007 neighborhood report from the Bronx District Public Health Office found that obesity is more common in the Bronx than in New York City overall.

The long-term care required to treat these conditions puts stress on the health care system, causing local and national health expenditures to skyrocket. The New York State Department of Health estimates that treatment for obesity-related diseases – like Type 2 diabetes – costs the State more than $7.6 billion every year and the U.S. $150 billion.

In 1998, Medicare and Medicaid financed approximately half of the costs of obesity-related diseases in the U.S., according to a study published in the Health Affairs journal by Eric Finkelstein and his colleagues.

Obesity-related diseases affect more than just the patients; these diseases also affect current and future generations of taxpayers.

“We feel strongly that the government should not be subsidizing or promoting a product that we know makes people sick, especially in the name of nutrition,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the New York City Health Commissioner.

Farley said the proposal targets drinks that are essentially nothing more than sugar water.

A 12-ounce serving of water contains no sugar, but original lemon-lime Gatorade has the equivalent of about five packets of table sugar and Coca-Cola Classic has nearly 10. Under the ban, most drinks with more than one packet of sugar would be excluded from allowable food stamp purchases.

Sugary drinks contain empty calories, which pump extra energy into a person’s diet without providing nourishment, just like a roommate who takes up space in an apartment but does not help with chores.

Most sugary drinks run up calorie intake without giving the body a satisfied appetite in return, causing people to consume even more calories than they would by drinking water alone. These extra calories promote excess weight gain, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough of the hormone insulin – the ticket sugar uses to gain admission into cells – or when the body ignores it. When sugar cannot move into cells, it backs up in the blood, sometimes with insulin, acting like a line of people waiting to get inside a movie theatre.

Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage the kidneys, eyes, heart and blood vessels.

There is a clear, independent link between sugar consumption and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Frank Hu, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who studies the effect of diet on Type 2 diabetes.

“The increase in consumption of sugar has paralleled with the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the U.S.,” Hu said. “Sugar-sweetened beverages have not been on the radar screen for most health professionals until recently. In the past, so much emphasis was put on fat, but now we recognize that sugary drinks are more deleterious.”

Hu said the evidence against sugary drinks is now strong enough to start making public health recommendations.

But is the best way for a city government to combat obesity and diabetes through restricting soda for the poor?

Another solution to tax all soda drinkers crumbled earlier this year after Paterson’s penny-an-ounce tax faced opposition from the New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes.

Reducing the size of cans and bottles in vending machines is also an alternative, according to Dr. Robert Kushner, a professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“It makes intuitive sense that the key is to reduce access,” Kushner said.

One of the challenges of reducing access, though, is identifying the many different sources of sugar available to consumers. According to Kushner, sugar is not like cigarette smoke, which comes from a single source.

Other experts, and some food stamp users, argue that restricting access alone is not enough because it does not teach people how to adopt healthier behaviors.

“There needs to be education to complement the SNAP program,” said Amy Lesh, the clinical nutrition manager at St. Barnabas Hospital. “Nothing is going to work without education.”

Food stamp recipient, Richard Cruz, a 34-year resident of Hunts Point, said he understands what the mayor is trying to do, but he does not think Bloomberg is going about it the right way.

“If he would have a class on things that make you fat, then may be people would relate to that better,” Cruz said. “I would attend one even though I’m not overweight – it’s for my health.”

Bloomberg admitted in early October that banning soda from food stamp purchases is not a perfect solution, but after a failed tax proposal, he said it is another way of going about the problem.

Dr. Peter Selwyn, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, said political officials should speak with different stakeholders in the affected population before making policies.

“This should inform the decision making,” said Selwyn. “I’m not aware this was part of the process or not.”

The proposal is currently in Washington, D.C., where it is undergoing thoughtful and careful review, according to Hans Billger, a public affairs specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture.

Some Bronxites said even if the federal agency does approve the proposal, they are not convinced it will actually stop people from buying sugary drinks.

“If they don’t buy it with food stamps, they’re going to buy it with cash,” said Ivette Lee, a food stamp user who buys ginger ale at C-Town. “Are they going to stop making cash, too?”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Special ReportsComments (1)

Bringing the farm to the Bronx

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

It felt like Indian summer in the northwest Bronx on October 28th, and residents were enjoying its harvest.  Each visitor to the Norwood Food Co-op distribution event outside the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany on East 206th Street picked through farm-fresh eggs, yogurts, green tomatoes and two varieties of apples, stuffing them into canvas shoulder bags.

For a moment it was possible to forget that the 205th Street D train station was a half block away.

That’s the appeal of this Community Sponsored Agriculture food co-op, which connects nearly 60 Bronx families with Norwich Meadows Farm upstate.  From June through early November, fruits and vegetables are picked at the farm and loaded onto a truck that arrives in the Bronx by 2:30 p.m. Between 4 and 7 p.m., the produce is available to co-op members in Norwood.  The harvest changes week to week, depending on the weather and the season.

The co-op’s most common share option feeds a family of two to four people.  The $315 seasonal fee comes to about $15 a week.  Last week, that money went a long way; each family received apples, potatoes, greens, radishes, green tomatoes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, leeks, milk, yogurt, butter, honey, granola, and eggs.  The co-op estimates that families save an average of 15 to 20 percent each season over what they’d pay for comparable organic produce at a green market.

“What’s good this week?  Brussels sprouts!” said volunteer Fred Dowd, 77, who was manning last week’s distribution event.  Co-op members must volunteer four hours each season, and all new members must attend an orientation and training session.

Dowd, who was joined at the event by his wife Cathy, has lived in Norwood for 24 years and been affiliated with the co-op for three.  He said now that he’s retired, he enjoys being out meeting people, and appreciates that the co-op makes it easier to eat healthfully.

He recommended bags of Macoun and Empire apples to co-op member Christina Mozzicato, 30.  “They look great!” exclaimed Mozzicato, as she added the apples to her bag.

Mozzicato, who lives in Woodlawn, sung the praises of the co-op.  “It’s a great way when you’re living in the Bronx to get fresh food,” she said.  “There aren’t that many options in the Bronx.”

Indeed, Norwood especially is lacking in such options as it awaits the reopening of its only supermarket, FoodTown, which was destroyed in a December 2009 fire.  It’s slated to reopen by the end of this year.

The co-op, which is affiliated with nonprofit Just Food, also aims to support the greater good.  It accepts EBT/Food Stamps, and any leftovers at the end of distribution events are driven over to the soup kitchen at Part of the Solution in Fordham.

The summer/fall season is coming to an end next week, and members are looking forward to monthly winter deliveries from December through May that may include items like fresh jam, maple syrup, and organic chicken in addition to the produce and dairy.

While new members generally join the co-op in the summer instead of winter, Dowd encouraged them to plan ahead.  “A lot of people will stop and want to buy something,” he said of passersby.  “I tell them, ‘you can sign up for next year!’”

To learn more about the Norwood Food Co-op, hungry Bronxites can visit http://www.norwoodfoodcoop.org or call 718-514-3305.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, FoodComments (0)

Caridad de la Luz: An Artist-Activist Bred in the Bronx

By Carmen Williams

Eight years ago, Caridad De La Luz, then a 27-year-old Puerto Rican poet and performer, finally found her artistic voice. It was just a month after the World Trade Center attacks and De La Luz — like most New Yorkers — was still in shock. But she was also inspired. The result was one of her best-known poems, WTC, which uses only carefully crafted three-word phrases that begin with the letters W, T or C: “What’s the cause/Work to connect/Wish to change/Want to cry…Wish time could/Wash this clean…Watched the Calamity/ Weakness to Courage.”

The poem is emblematic of De La Luz’s work. Through her art, she aims to transform tragedy into hope. Known by the stage name “La Bruja“, or witch, De La Luz performed recently at Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a part of “The Sense of a Woman” musical, dance and poetry exhibition. Her rhythmic speech, passionate raps and charismatic delivery wowed the crowd. “It’s not easy being a woman,” she told the audience. “We deal with menstruation, menopause and MySpace.”

Now 36, De La Luz has been performing on the popular East Village cafe’s stage for 13 years. During that time, she has evolved from community organizer and marketing rep to actress, singer, songwriter, comedian and artist-activist. She has also used her talents to give back to the community by working with local organizations that help young people, especially young Latinas.

Born in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx (where she still lives), De La Luz graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School and attended the State University of New York in Binghamton. But it wasn’t until she began working as a community organizer in Hunts Point in the 1990s that she witnessed the direct impact of high rates of teen pregnancy, low educational attainment, drug abuse and STDs. After her stint as an organizer, she worked in retail marketing for Bloomingdale’s but then quit to begin a full-time artist and poet. But even as she developed her artistic side, the energetic Bronx native couldn’t forget what she had seen as an organizer. Those memories led her to start Latinas4Life, an organization that runs high school workshops around the city.

“I worked with youth before becoming “La Bruja,” she said. “but once I saw the statistics of Latinas in particular, I felt the need to create something to bring awareness about these issues from a Latina perspective.”

The numbers are indeed grim. In New York City, a third of Latinas leave high school without graduating. One in every four Latina teens becomes pregnant. And even more disturbing are the effects of these issues. Nationally, one of every seven Latinas will attempt suicide.

De La Luz believes that many of the difficulties young Latinas experience are the result of trying to balance two cultures, family roots and American identity. Research backs that up. A 1999 study conducted by the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services found that the lack of communication between daughters and mothers and the lack of information about how to deal with the conflict between old and new values was a factor in suicide attempts by Latinas.

But she thinks its possible to successfully reconcile both cultures, as she has. “I don’t think you have to choose,” she said. “You can embrace both cultures at once. Have a balance and love both sides for the ugliness and the beauty.”

Her work as a role model extends beyond Latinas4Life. “She’s very connected to the community and she’s a great representative of the Bronx,” says Victoria Sammartino, founder and executive director of Voices UnBroken, a non-profit organization that produces writing workshops for Bronx young people in foster care, as well as adults in homeless shelters and correctional facilities. De La Luz is a board member of the group and has helped with workshops. “It’s important to the participants because they know that someone who has achieved success is actually interested in them and their work,” Sammartino said. “They’re all big fans of hers and feel connected to her.”

Caridad de la Luz performing at the WORD Series for Voices Unbroken at Yankee Stadium with La India.  Photo Courtesy of Caridad de la Luz

De La Luz performing at the WORD Series for Voices UnBroken at Yankee Stadium with La India. Photo Courtesy of Caridad De La Luz

But Latinas4Life is closest to her own journey. Through the group’s workshops, she has heard harrowing tales from young teens: tales of rape, suicide attempts and depression. De La Luz can relate because she has experienced these issues herself. She overcome bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and date rape, the subject of her poem She: “She fought, she yelled, she lost, she fell/She left her body there and swore never to tell/She let some years pass believing she was at fault.”

“It took me 15 years to write that poem and share it,” she said. Her hope is that talking about her experiences will help others heal. “This work is transformational,” she said. “It’s about transforming lives without leaving someone behind.”

She is often emotionally drained after a workshop. “We think because they’re teenagers, they don’t deal with this,” she said. “But most of these girls have been dealing with these issues. They’re dying to pull themselves out.”

De La Luz tries to correct these issues in her own home, talking candidly about problems with her son Kelson, 11, and daughter Carina, 9. She even broaches conversations with her kids that are still taboo within her traditional culture. “The old Latina way is to not tell the truth about things like sex but when you treat it as not natural and you grow up with complexes and insecurities,” she said. “I share with my daughter the things I’ve seen.”

She and her husband, G. Bo Vasquez, a professional DJ, live next door to her parents. And she says they have no intention of leaving. She’s close to her parents and says they encouraged her to pursue her passion, even though it was an unconventional career. Her late great-grandmother sparked her desire to write poetry by teaching her poems that she would recite them in front of family members. It was a poem inspired by her grandmother in 1995 that laid the foundation for her work as a full-time artist.

“My best friend’s brother told me about Nuyorican Cafe,” she said. “The first poem I performed was so full of pride and love for my island and culture. It was like my grandmother was talking to me.”

She received a standing ovation for her performance, and eventually her poems earned her a monthly slot at the cafe. Since she first appeared on the stage, the poet has developed in many artistic areas–actress, singer, song-writer.

An advertisement for Boogie Rican Blvd.  Picture is courtesy of Caridad de la Luz

An advertisement for Boogie Rican Blvd. Photo courtesy of Caridad De La Luz

“The thing that’s always impressed me about La Bruja is her combination of talent,” said Daniel Gallant, the executive director of the cafe. “Last year, she did a two-week run, and every single night she had a different show. She has enough breadth of talent that different audiences know her for different reasons–comedian, actress, singer, poet.”

“Her talents match the venue,” Gallant said. “She’s developed great characters at the cafe. She has range.”

Some of those developed characters were on display this summer when De La Luz portrayed seven different family members in her play “Boogie Rican Blvd.” She said the play was meant to be entertaining, but it also served as a healing tool.

“It was a labor of love, and I hope to shop it around to other theaters,” she said.

She has also become involved in the organization LatinosNYC through her assistant, Paul Rios. He met De La Luz two years ago after he contacted her over MySpace to perform at an event for suicide awareness. LatinosNYC gives information about HIV awareness, domestic violence, suicide to the Latino community.

“I contacted La Bruja, [to perform] and on the day of the show, she showed up and did a hell of a job,” Rios said. “I admire her for what she stands for–a poet, actor, activist, hip hop artist, mother and wife.”

Rios hopes many other will get to see that talent. “I would like her to reach the skies with her talent and beyond any limits that society sets on people, especially Latina females,” he said.

De La Luz is also excited about her future. She’s working on an anthology of her work and she’s slated to release an album next month on her independent record label. She will also continue her charity work.

“I have schools lined up for this year and I want to get the organization registered as non-profit status,” she said. “I am going to continue to grow.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

Urban Gardener Looks for a New Dream to Plant

By Sarah Wali

Last month, Tanya Fields got a call she had been dreading from Michael Holosyzk, regional manager at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  Liberated Urban Farm, the plot of land she had spent $500 and four months cultivating, would be cleared to make room for a playground.

Adjacent to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm.

Next to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm. Photo by Tanya Fields

“He called me on Thursday and told me they are excavating on Monday so if there’s anything you want you should go tomorrow and get it,” said Fields.

She chuckles at his suggestion.   To start an urban farm, Fields and a team of community volunteers had to make raised beds, a gardening tool used to protect fertile soil from possibly polluted city soil by lining the dug-up earth with plywood.  Where would she put the plywood?  They had also planted decorative plants known to urban farmers as ornamentals.  They had no place to put them either.

So she left the garden untouched.   When she came home from work that Monday, Parks and Recreation had cleared the land.  The newly planted flowers and trees were replaced with a half-acre of overturned dirt.

“It’s gone,” she said.  “It was bulldozed, it’s gone.  The raised beds, the flowers — they’re gone. “

Of 152 community gardens in the Bronx, 72 are currently facing the same fate as the Liberated Urban Farm.  Started by neighborhood activists and financed through their fundraising efforts, these plots aren’t legal and so the gardeners can’t stop the city from tearing them down.

Aresh Javadi, board member of the gardening advocacy group More Gardens!, works with threatened gardens to create awareness and political support for their cause.   According to Javadi, the main problem is the lack of clear legal framework for obtaining and keeping community gardens in New York City.

Instead, prospective gardeners must contact the Department of Housing and Preservation to make sure the city doesn’t have plans for the lot, and then wait for approval, a process that could take months and sometimes even years.

Javadi instead urges would-be gardeners to just plunge in.

“Buy bolt cutters at the local hardware store and open the garden gates,” he said.

Javadi encourages green-thumbed activists to clear the land they are interested in farming and rally support from neighbors and politicians to expedite the licensing process.    By winning this battle, says Javadi, they are helping to fight the legal war.

No laws insure the security of the more than 600 community gardens in the five boroughs.   While yearly licenses can be granted by Green Thumbs, there are no guarantees for renewal.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made this clear on Jan. 10, 1999.  The city was in an economic boom, and housing was scarce. In an effort to raise more money, he announced he had allocated 115 of 700 community gardens for sale to the commercial market in May. “This is a free-market economy,” he said on a WABC radio show that  January. “The era for communism is over.”

The city’s community gardeners were furious. Protests in front of City hall blocked the streets for hours, and 92 activists were arrested for civil disobedience.   But demonstrators weren’t the only ones in court.   New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged that Giuliani’s attempted sale of the gardens would break state environmental laws.

Finally, two days before the auction, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land struck a $4 million deal with Giuliani.  They would buy 60 of the lots, be caretakers for the other 55, and, in return, the lawsuit against the mayor’s office was dropped.

In 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the first of his three terms, he revisited the issue of community gardening.  An agreement between Bloomberg and Spitzer laid out, for gardeners, a system that required the approval of politicians and council members for the city to take back plots from gardeners.

Four years later, Bloomberg signed another agreement with Spitzer that gave gardeners five years to rally support from community leaders and prove their worth to their communities.

That’s why Javadi encouraged prospective farmers to take up guerilla farming.   By first putting their money and efforts into the gardens and then rallying for support, More Gardens! hopes to keep community gardens on the political agenda.

For urban farmers like Field, this can be risky.  The single mother of four has been living on Fox Street in a small two bedroom apartment since 2002.  She could see the huge playground and basketball court across the street from her living room window.

“It seemed really strange to me that there was a plot of earth near a playground that hadn’t been built on,” she said.

But she brushed her concerns aside and focused first on completing her B.A. in Political Science at Baruch College then finding work.  She began as an Environmental Justice Activist with Mother’s on the move.  Her work with mothers on the move had opened her eyes to economic, social and environmental issues facing the people of Hunts Point.   So when she decided to start her gardening adventure, she was determined it would yield more than just tomatoes, sunflowers and basil.

“I live in a community that has five shelters in a three-block radius,” she said. “I can’t fart without hitting someone who might be touched by this.”

Eventually she became an Outreach coordinator with with Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit whose mission is to create programs that address policy and planning issues in the Hunts Point area. As a program assistant with Sustainable South Bronx, she worked to inform the community of their role in creating and implementing laws and procedure.  She was shocked by the abundance of health problems in the Hunts Point area, including asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Fields decided to attack the root of these problems. “One of the parts that I really looked at that affects so many communities is lack of access to food,” she said.  “What people are consuming because of that lack of quality food, and how the psychosis of poverty manifests itself in the choices that we make in terms of what we put into our body.”

She immersed herself in her work with Sustainable South Bronx, and eventually became a program assistant for Majora Carter LLC, the private for-profit consulting group that lead by Majora Carter, creator of  Sustainable South Bronx.   The harder she worked, the more concerned she became about the community around her. She could still see the half-acre of empty land from her window, but didn’t consider starting an urban farm until the issues she had been addressing at work hit home.  Fields had gained more than 25 pounds since she moved to Fox Street, and her kids had developed serious respiratory problems.

“I’m doing this out of need,” she said.  “I was tired of buying the bad avocados at the supermarket.  I was seeing children in the community get too big and I watched myself get too big.”

Fields found that in her Hunts Point neighborhood, part of the second poorest congressional district in the country, single women just like her ran three out of four households.  Convinced that poverty is tied to gender, she decided to create a community garden that would teach as well as feed.

“I was thinking about the real business side of that would teach them real skills, things they could put on a resume,” she said.

The idea was to create a community garden that would force those participating to create a viable business model to sell their produce.  The women would develop a marketing plan; find buyers; identify aspects of the project they would not be able to do themselves, such as transporting their products, and create partnerships with other vendors in the community.

So, in June she found a partner in field manager Dwaine Lee, a co-worker at Sustainable South Bronx who had experience in farming.  Over the summer Lee provided technical assistance on how to set-up the plot of land for growing, and assisted with funding.   He also helped Fields get in touch with Just Foods, a non-profit organization that connects local growers with the communities around them.   They gained the support of Just Food’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, a program that allows community members to pay an annual fee of $400 to $600 and receive enough vegetables to feed a two or three people on a weekly basis.

The project seemed to be moving along smoothly.  Fields and Lee began to raise awareness on their project, and a steady stream of volunteers came to assist with the garden.  They cleared the debris, and put in raised beds.  They planted hydrangea, an ornamental flower, cherry sandalwood trees and butterfly bushes to attract pollinating bees.

With the garden created and the community behind them, they focused their efforts on garnering political support.  On Sept. 26, Fields threw the Liberated  Urban Farm Family Fun Block Party, and invited neighbors, politicians and community garden advocates.   Over 100 people attended the event, including council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo.

Yet her political activities and hard work couldn’t stop Parks and Recreation from tearing down the garden in November.  Now, Fields has turned for help to the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, a grassroots organization that promotes community gardens through political advocacy.

Karen Washington, president of the coalition and a long-time community gardening activist, created the group to insure the security of community gardens around the New York area.    Like Fields, Washington started with the empty lot in front of her house on Prospect Avenue in 1988.  From there she has created a group of 10 community gardens in the Bronx that regularly supply fruits and vegetables for the East Tremont Farmer’s market, called La Familia Verde (The Green Family).

Because of her success in creating almost a dozen community gardens in the Bronx, Washington has emerged as a leader in the legal fight for community gardens.   She attributes her success to being able to make informed arguments that politicians will listen to.

“You always follow protocol,” she said.  “Then when you go and meet your adversary, you know you’re facts and you go in there educated strong and with the nonviolent quietness of a mouse.  You don’t have to raise your voice because your words are so powerful people listen.”

It is with this philosophy that Washington began the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, and has expanded beyond the Bronx and created partnerships with some of New York’s biggest community gardening activists.  Their goal is to get politicians to understand the impact and significance of community gardens.

“What I try to do is make people accountable,” she said. ”I know the politicians hear what is going on in the neighborhoods, but some of them don’t take the time out to go and see.”

To carry out this task, she created the Legislative Committee of the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, made up of three community gardeners, including Javadi.  The group has created a list of nine recommendations for legislation.   They ask for classification as state parks, first pick when lots become available and the opportunity to create gardens in communities that lack open space.

While pro-green politicians such as Rep. Jose E. Serrano have stood beside the gardeners, the coalition still faces strong opposition from proponents of affordable housing.

Yet for the gardeners, affordable housing and urban gardening should go hand in hand.   Urban gardens create a sense of community, and are a way for people to have a direct interest in their neighborhoods.  This, says Fields, could help instead of hurt housing development.

“It gives people an investment in the community,” she said.  “When you do have people who have money who come into the community it’s not as scary because they feel like they do have a vested interest in the community.“

Standing in front of an empty field, Fields watches her children play in the playground adjacent to the plot.  It is they, she says, who give her the determination to make the Liberated Urban Farm dream a reality.

“When I first took them out into the garden they were digging up the soil,” she said.  “That was the first time my six-year-old had seen an earthworm,” Fields said.  She’s hoping for many more “firsts” when her next garden takes root.

Posted in Bronx Life, FoodComments (2)

Fresh as a Daisy

By Leslie Minora

Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan.

Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan. Photo by Leslie Minora

It is usually a cause for concern when a 99-year-old woman arrives at the hospital, but this was not the case on Nov. 23 in the cardiac rehabilitation center of Montefiore Hospital in the southeast Bronx.

The hospital’s doctors and staff threw a birthday celebration for Daisy McFadden in the rehabilitation exercise room, where she has worked out three times per week since her bypass surgery 11 years ago. Her actual birthday was the following day.

“We only do this for the best,” said April Vail, who has been the manager of rehabilitation for 12 years. “Everybody loves her.”

“I come to exercise; that’s number one,” said McFadden, who was a nurse for 34 years. But she had a few other secrets to pass on. “I eat five vegetables every day, three fruits, and I steam them,” she said. The Bronx elder, who wore a turquoise jacket with tangerine accents and a matching scarf, was very proud of her health regimen.

“You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people,” she said.

Her bypass surgeon and rehabilitation team stood around her as her friends and the hospital staff sang “Happy Birthday.” McFadden blew out all of the candles with a deep breath and a swift puff. “It was all that exercise,” she said.

“I’m just full of happiness,” she said beaming as she mingled with about 15 party guests. She was on her feet for most of the afternoon without a cane or walker and appeared energetic as she entertained the constant stream of people wishing her a happy birthday and asking her secrets to great skin, endless energy, and a long life.

The youthful senior goes to bed at 9 p.m. and wakes up at 5 a.m. “Yes, and I get fully dressed,” she said. McFadden orders her clothing from the Bloomingdales, Talbots, and Nordstrom catalogs. Bloomingdales petite sizes fit well, she said, because the arms of regular sizes are too long for McFadden, who is built small with tiny wrists. She enjoys getting dressed, and said aging hasn’t slowed down the process, except for those occasions when she must replace the tiny batteries of her two hearing aids.

McFadden is lucky to be alive and in good health, said Dr. Lari Attai, who performed her triple bypass surgery 11 years ago. “Without surgery, she would have gone on to have a heart attack,” he said. Attai, 77, who has been with the hospital for 52 years, stopped performing surgery last year, and now teaches at the hospital. “You look terrific,” he told McFadden, whom he calls a “young lady.”

When McFadden was an even younger lady, she used to attend local social events and dance with her husband, a New York Police Department officer, whom she married in 1934. “We had a good life together, wonderful life together…over 50 years,” she said. Her husband died in 1985.

Another painful loss struck McFadden three years ago, when her only son, a Massachusetts radiologist named Samuel after her husband, also died four months after doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. “I miss him so,” McFadden said. “He was great.” His photo sits prominently on a side table in her living room, across from the front door, next to the couch. “It upsets me to talk about him,” she said. McFadden has two grandsons and two great-grandsons, who all live out of town.

McFadden was not only a nurse by profession, but a nurse by vocation to her family and friends. “I guess I was chosen to be a caregiver,” she said. “I’d do it all over again.”

An award from New York University’s nursing school hangs on her living room wall, honoring her for her career in nursing during which she spent 34 years working for the Bureau of Public Health. She is the only living graduate of her class.

Now, McFadden has so many people who care for her.  A week and a half after her party, the cluster of mylar balloons in her living room have deflated slightly, but four bouquets of flowers are still bright and perky. The table next to the big beige couch with its dark sturdy wooden legs is too crowded with family photos to fit any cards, but McFadden neatly lined up about 20 birthday well-wishes on several other tables throughout the spacious room, decorated with an upholstered chair donned with a lace doily and a stone corner fireplace.

The number of cards and flowers is surprising for a woman who has outlived her family and friends, but not if you know McFadden.

She lives by this advice and repeats it over and over to young people: “You collect friends a generation behind you and a generation behind them.” That’s right, two generations of friends, she says, because when people become too old to drive, so are their peers.

McFadden doesn’t drive, but that certainly doesn’t limit her activities. Since her retirement in 1972, she has been on the move more than most people a third her age. She retired early, at 62, because she wanted to travel. She went on island cruises with her husband;  visited Hawaii with her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and traveled extensively with the American Nurses Association, visiting India, Tokyo, Singapore, and Moscow. After retirement, she was very active in the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program, RSVP. Through this, she started the 60 Plus Food and Fun Club at her church. And to work off the food and fun, in the 1970s, she began the 60 Plus Swingers, an exercise and dance program. The dance group still exists though she said, “Many of the ones who started have passed on.” The Swingers perform at nursing homes, senior centers, and schools. Once, during a performance at Lehman College, one student yelled, “You go, grandma!” “That’s right. We are pretty hot,” she said, laughing.

The 60 Plus Swingers meetings are still part of McFadden’s routine, though she no longer can dance. Her knees have been hurting recently. “Of course, I’m the oldest one,” she said, adding that now she is the DJ. The Swingers dance to music from both records and CDs. “We’re up to date,” she said.

In addition to her church group, McFadden is a member of the 47th Precinct Council, the East 222nd Street Block Association, and a social club called “The Girlfriends” that began over 80 years ago. She is active in the alumni associations of both schools she attended, the Harlem Hospital Center School of Nursing, and New York University, where she earned her bachelors and masters degrees in nursing from 1951-1955 at a time when the school only cost $13 per credit. One birthday floral arrangement on her table is from the dean of the nursing program.

In the little spare time that McFadden has with all of her exercise and community involvement, she teaches a fitness class once a week at a local senior center as part of New York City’s Stay Well program. McFadden focuses on fitness as well as practical safety advice like turning on the light to go to the bathroom during the night to prevent falls.

“She’s been a positive role model to all of us,” said Jacqueline Sams, 74, whose mother went to nursing school with McFadden. Sams, who lives about five blocks from McFadden in Williamsbridge, calls her upbeat attitude “catchy.” Because of McFadden’s influence, Sams no longer eats red meat, and now says “74” proudly when asked her age.

McFadden is certainly not shy about her own age. She feels “blessed” to have lived such a long life, and her well-being has become her full-time job. Exercise at Montefiore, teaching at the senior center, grocery shopping, and cooking take up most of the day. But, she said, “there’s such a thing as necessary luxury.” For her, that means making time to get her hair and nails done twice a month at her favorite salon on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

Access-A-Ride drives McFadden to the salon, and she takes the express bus back to Williamsbridge, where she has lived in her tidy home since 1938. “Everyone knows me on the block,” she said. Her home, one of five houses in 1938 on the now-crowded block, is set back from East 222nd Street. Gray stone arches around the front door and white planters holding pink blossoms sit on either side of the front stoop. It looks like something from the set of a Hansel and Gretel performance. The brick facade, significantly less worn than the siding covering most of the block’s houses, is perfectly in place without any moss, dirt or visible signs of age.

Perhaps it’s something in the air.

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