Tag Archive | "health"

For Two Old Friends, Wii Isn’t Child’s Play

Tyrone Owens plays Wii bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center on Franklin Ave. in Morrisania. Photo by Alec Johnson

James Haggins, 61, plays Wii bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center on Franklin Avenue in Morrisania as Carlos Isa looks on. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

By Alec Johnson

They grew up with stickball in the streets. As classmates at P.S. 63 and Morris High School, they played basketball. Now two old buddies in Morrisania are continuing their decades-long competition  on Monday afternoons throwing strikes and spares in the recreation room of the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center, where they join a group of senior citizens to play Nintendo Wii.

“We’re regulars, said Tyrone Owens, 63, about himself and his lifelong friend, James Haggins, 61. “We go back 60 years in the same neighborhood.”

Owens and Haggins join about a half dozen others who compete in a videogame more common on a teenager’s Christmas list. The Wii is actually owned by the Morrisania Public Library, and librarian Ilham Al-Basri

James Haggins and Tyrone Owens take a break from Wii Bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center where they play every Monday afternoon.

James Haggins and Tyrone Owens take a break from Wii Bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center where they play every Monday afternoon. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

brings it to the center each week as part of the library’s outreach program.

“The senior citizens like the Wii,” said  Al-Basri, who got the idea for using  Wii Sports last year at the New York Public Library health fair.

Dedicated players aren’t the only asset in Morrisania. “We’re lucky the center has this big TV,” said Al-Basri, pointing to a screen wider than a bowling lane. “Wii Sports are better played on a bigger screen.”

The room doesn’t look much like a bowling alley, with its hanging plants and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths. But there’s lots of room — it’s about 20 by 30 feet — and the players have the space they need to score high. On a recent Monday,  Owens was hot, throwing strike after strike and finishing with a winning score of 165. Haggins seems a little rusty; he didn’t break 100. (As in regular bowling, a score of 300 is a perfect game.)

Owens credited his history of athletic prowess. As a child, he rode a unicycle around Morrisania, and, when he was 12, he taught his brother Albert how to ride. Albert took the skill beyond the neighborhood to perform with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Although it has been decades since anyone has seen Owens ride, he insists he could still do it if he wanted to.

Al-Basri teased Haggins about his loss. “You missed last Monday,” he said. “It shows when you miss a Monday. Athletes need to practice every day.”

Al-Basri said the seniors chose Wii bowling over Wii tennis because it is more realistic. “Bowling is more energizing and it is more true to the real world,” said Al-Basri, who, as a tennis player, agrees that Wii tennis isn’t up to snuff.

In the nine months since the seniors started playing Wii, they have gained nicknames from the senior center’s janitor, Eric Dance, who christened Owens  “Ty Boogey” and calls Haggins “Moose” to encourage them. “Those guys are keeping it strong,” he said.

“It’s show time, Ty Boogey,” Dance hollered as Owens set up for a frame. He leapt forward three steps, then swung his right arm and lifted his right leg as if he were hurling a 12-pound bowling ball at real pins in the local bowling ally. The digital ball rocketed down the lane and after all nine pins fell, the sound of a perfect strike resonated from the television. With a wide grin on his face, Owens returned to his seat and waited his next turn.

In the meantime, a determined Haggins stepped up, and bowled in an awkwardly quick shuffle. It was a little off the mark, but not enough so he couldn’t finish strong with a second shot. You would think Haggins and Owens were ninepin regulars, but neither has spent much time bowling for real.

“He’s back in the game with a spare,” hollered Dance, followed by a brief round of applause. That, however was the end of his rebound.

“This is good exercise and good motivation for the seniors,” said the Rev. Idus Nunn, director of the senior center. “I’m trying to get another day in the week or maybe a grant so we can get our own Wii.”

As  the top scorer of the day, Owens won a green fleece jacket donated to the senior center for the winner of the week’s tournament.

Looking down at his plate of mashed potatoes and a piece of chicken fried steak, Owens said, “This is a victory meal for me.”  It brought back memories. Growing up,  Owens and Haggins spent frequented each others’ houses. “My mama was the neighborhood cook,” said Haggins.

Despite the game’s outcome, Haggins and Owens both agreed that Wii bowling is much more fun than bingo. And although they see each other every day, they look forward to playing every week to keep their competition going for the rest of their lives.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, SportsComments (0)

Gourmet Tacos in a Truck

by Matthew Huisman

Medardo Florencio, owner of Taqueria Guadalupe, cooks up tacos for residents living in Soundview.

Medardo Florencio of Taqueria Guadalupe cooks up tacos for residents living in Soundview. Photo by Matthew Huisman

It’s lunchtime on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx and my stomatch growls, reminding me that I haven’t eaten since 9 a.m.  Instead of grabbing a greasy slice of pizza, or stopping in at one of the many fast food joints that litter the area, I opt instead for Taqueria Guadalupe.

The chrome taco truck sits where Manor and Westchester Avenues meet, a shining, silver oasis of food. Medardo Florencio–owner, chef and cashier–greets me at the window. There is no table, no cash register, no building–only Florencio’s truck converted into a mobile kitchen. The sole concessions to traditional dining are two lonely chairs leaning against the brick wall of D&G Fashions, a store that sells ladies wear and plus sizes.

Florencio didn’t ask what I’m ordering, only how many.

“Tres, por favor,” I said, as I was feeling particularly hungry.

Florencio immediately goes to work, dicing onion and pineapple. Together with a fistful of flavored pork, Florencio tosses the mixture on the grill. The meat sizzles, wafting the smell of al pastor tacos to the street curb. The reaction causes my mouth to water like one of Pavlov’s dogs. By this time I am not alone.

Jenny Cosme walks up to the window, glancess briefly at the menu and orders one bistec and one chicken taco and waits patiently.

“Their food is good, and it’s healthy too,” says Cosme. “It’s healthier than the fast food because it’s on a grill.”

Cosme likes crema y pico de gallo, a mixture of raw onion, tomato and cilantro, on her tacos.

“They cut everything daily,” Coseme said while piling on the pico.

Taqueria Guadalupe at the corner of Manor and Westchester Avenues in the Soundview neighborhood. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Taqueria Guadalupe at the corner of Manor and Westchester Avenues in Soundview. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Florencio has been feeding his hungry neighbors in the Soundview neighborhood for more than seven years. He arrived in this country 20 years ago from Guerrero, a state in southwest Mexico known for its tourism and silver. Florencio says he has about 80 customers a day, enough to support his wife and four kids. A fifth is on the way.

But on the streets of the Bronx, where good, cheap and healthy food can be as scarce as a Phillies fan, Taqueria Guadalupe is one of the few places that offer a healthier alternative.

“It’s all fresh,” Florencio says in Spanish pointing to a tray of toppings. “We make it fresh every day.”

Spicy red salsa, avacado puree, pico de gallo and fresh lime are a few of the extras that Florencio offers his customers.

In a few minutes my order is up. I pay the $7.50 and walk back to the chairs. Steam rises from the plate in the cold air. The first bite is packed with pineapple. The sweet juice runs down my chin and I lap it up with a lick of my tongue.

“No sense in being proper when you’re on the sidewalk,” I muse, plowing through the first taco.

I had no problem with the second and third. The spicy pork, tangy lime and crisp onion make a heavenly treat wrapped in two corn tortillas.

Sidewalk dining at its finest.

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

What Does It Take to Go from Fat to Fit?

by Sarah Wali

Mohamed Islam manages one of the 175 new Green Carts in the Bronx in East Tremont.

Mohamed Islam manages one of the 175 new Green Carts in the Bronx in East Tremont.

The Bronx has seen its share of problems.  It was burning in the 1970s and stricken with a drug epidemic in the 1980s.  As the crime rates went down throughout the 1990s, a new statistic made headlines: the Bronx was getting fatter.

According to the New York City Community Health Survey,  obesity rates had more than doubled by the end of the 1990s to 24 percent.  By the time Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, it was the fattest borough in New York City, and by 2003, almost 62 percent of the Bronx was either obese or overweight.

In response to this health crisis, Mayor Bloomberg introduced a number of initiatives, including a law that requires all restaurants with 15 or more locations in New York City to display calorie counts on their menus, and 1,000 new licenses to Green Cart vendors, small carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables in areas with the least access to healthy food.

“It is the job of the government, if something is detrimental to your health to a, warn you and b, if it’s serious, try to prevent it,” he said at the Oct. 13 mayoral debate.

Mayor Bloomberg’s use of calorie count to warn diners that McDonald’s, KFC and other fast-food restaurants were unhealthy did little to deter shoppers from their cravings.  According to an Oct. 6 web article in Health Affairs, Bronx residents may have been shocked to find that a muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts they once thought was a healthy alternative for a 220-calorie glazed donut was actually 630 calories, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will buy lower calorie food.  Rather, researchers from New York University found that customers were, on average, buying 846 calories per meal, up from 825 before the implementation of the program.

Clearly, the Bronx is not slimming down. Karen Washington, a long-time health activist in the South Bronx, says that the main issue in the Bronx today is food  and obesity.

“The overall concern throughout the Bronx is health and nutrition,” she said.   “Lack of quality food need(s) to be addressed.”

Washington, who sits on the board for Just Food, an initiative to bring healthy community grown food the Bronx, has started the East Tremont Farmer’s market and is currently working on establishing a farmer’s school to help people learn how to grow their own food. She says she and her neighbors are limited by the fatty choices offered in their area.   Plus, with the financial crisis hitting the Bronx especially hard, residents are forced to consider expenses.

“When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family you are going to buy the cheapest food items,” she said.  “You need to feed your family.”

Bloomberg has tried to create an opportunity for Bronx residents to make healthier decisions.  In 2007, his administration began pushing legislation to license 1,500 fresh fruit and vegetable vendors in the fattest boroughs, including the Bronx.

The Bronx is now home to 175 of the 1,000 Green Carts in the city.  It’s a promising idea, but it has only been in effect since this July.   The true impact of the Green Carts has yet to be seen.

The little carts covered by yellow and green umbrellas imprinted with the logo “NYC Green Carts” carry an array of fruits and vegetables.    From apples and oranges to okra and peppers, the carts are supposed to offer a healthy alternative for residents, and open doors for employment.

Mohamed Islam, who runs the Green Cart in front of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, makes the hour-and-a-half trip every morning from his home in Queens because he loves produce, and believes in the Green Cart program.

Islam, 44, arrived in the United States almost a year ago.  He waited years for an opportunity to leave his home in Bangladesh.  Finally, in October, 2008, his brother’s sponsorship was accepted, and he and his wife boarded the plane excited about the chance for a better life.

Now, he makes the long trek from Queens to the Bronx hoping he will one day be able to own his own Green Cart.   Although he struggles to find the words in English that describe his passion for food and produce, his smile radiates with emotion and his eyes light up as he explains that fresh produce is often overlooked by many in this country.  His is an expert opinion. In Bangladesh, he was a government employee who focused on teaching and promoting the importance of agriculture.

He feels that the Green Cart program is a great way to promote healthy produce decisions in the Bronx.  As he waits for approval from the city for his own license, he manages the Bronx cart and for $80 per day, sells $250 to $300 worth of fruits and vegetables per day at the corner of Mt. Eden Avenue and Grand Concourse.

But for activists like Karen Washington, the waiting game is over.   Washington and the Northwest Bronx Community Coalition have started a program to teach youth the importance of urban gardening, and have just launched a new farmer’s market in the East Tremont area.   She says these initiatives are designed to put the power of change back in the community’s hands.

“I felt really lucky that we started a farmer’s market,” she said,  “which not only produces locally grown produce, but we teach people in the neighborhood, not only how to grow it but how to use it and how to cook it, which is very, very important.  “

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Tough Choices at the Market in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

For the past six months, Harrilal Ramlakhan has managed to avoid buying most of his food from local supermarkets. He is a community gardener who plants and sells his own fruits, vegetables and spices. But when the seasons turn and the cold settles in, he will have to switch his gardening tools for a shopping cart, and the idea depresses him.

“All the stuff that they have in the grocery stores is mass production, heavy with chemical and fertilizer so that it can remain on the shelves,” he said.  “But when it comes to food value, you don’t have that.  They will advertise and tell you it’s the best it’s the best but there’s nothing in it. “

With Ramlakhan and other farmers coming to the end of their season, residents of the Bronx’s East Tremont watch hopelessly as their strongest source of health food, the farmer’s market shuts, down.   Now they have to turn to bodegas, small markets, or supermarket bargain shopping, where price takes precedence over nutrition.

Most shoppers go to the largest supermarket in the area, Western Beef. The massive warehouse-like structure on Prospect Avenue is part of a chain of 21 full service supermarkets.  The company’s marketing strategy is to get full service markets in areas that have been shunned by other large corporations.

Western Beef, Inc. claims to offer service tailored to the ethnic needs of the community while taking income levels into consideration.  They offer products from the Goya line for the growing Latino population in the Bronx, along with exotic fruits such as yampi, a type of yam, and ajicito, a small pepper from the Dominican Republic, for a reasonable price.

Most customers arrive at the store with bargain flyers highlighting this week’s specials instead of grocery lists.   Ahdreanna Astudello, 49, says she only buys what is on the flyer.   She’s unemployed at the moment and says she has no choice.

Bargain shopping is a necessity for many residents in the Bronx.  For the borough with the highest unemployment rate, economics takes precedence over health, and it’s showing.    According to the New York Department of Health, 31 percent of South Bronx residents are obese, the highest rate in the city.  They attribute this to physical inactivity and lack of nutrition because of poor food choices.

Astudello is forced to stretch her dollars as thin as possible, and that affects her grocery shopping.

“Instead of milk, I drink Diet Coke,” said Astudello.  “It’s cheaper.”

Milk costs $2.99 a gallon at Western Beef, while a two-liter of Pepsi Diet Coke, is only sale for $1.99 cents.    The mother of two doesn’t have many healthy choices in her hand.  She considers taking advantage of the two for $5 deal on Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, but decides against it.

Most of the foods in the bargain flyer have little nutritional value, and are high in carbs, calories and fats.  Little Debbie is a popular product on the list, with their cupcakes, oatmeal creme pies and honey buns on sale.  At four for $5, the honey buns are a steal to Astudello.  She pays little notice to the nutrition facts, and isn’t concerned with the 12 grams of fat per bun.

Passion Bryant, 22, supplements fresh fruits and vegetables with canned foods. “The vegetables they have aren’t that fresh anyway, “ she said.  “I might as well buy it in a can.  It lasts longer and is cheaper.”

Bryant visits the farmer’s market when they are in season.  Although she was disappointed with the size of the market and the quality of food, she knows it’s better for her than the can of Libby’s fruits that’s on sale for 50 cents each.

Next Bryant heads for the cereal isle.  She doesn’t even glance at the healthier choices offered by Post, and priced at about $4.50.  Instead she heads straight for the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and gets two for $5.

Unhealthy choices in the bargain flyer are not unique to Western Beef.  Supermarkets all over the South Bronx neighborhood are offering discounts on ice cream, frozen pizza and cakes, with few healthy alternatives.

Fine Fare, the second largest supermarket in the area, has a Snack-Tacular Savings section which entices customers with selections such as Lays XXL Potato Chips at two for $6 and two Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats or Cinnabon Carmel Bars for $5.

Sonya Santiago says the choice is hers, and she chooses to feed her four grandchildren vegetable and produce.   They go through about a gallon of milk a day, and if the children want a snack,  she tries to be healthy by giving them Apple Jacks, fruit or apple sauce.

“Junk food is not allowed in my house,” she said.  “If I am going to spend my money it will be on something that is worth it.”

Santiago feels that although the quality of the produce in larger markets isn’t perfect, it’s a better in the long run.  She sees it as an investment in her family’s health. Besides, she argued, the produce is often on sale too.  Although prices don’t dip as low as the farmer’s market, with a little budgeting she is able to satisfy her family’s appetite without the health risk.

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A Garden of Happiness Grows in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

Karen Washington traces her persuasive powers as a community leader back to 1966, when she was 12 years old. Her younger brother had insulted much bigger kids, and they were standing outside their building in Harlem waiting to beat him up.  Her mother pleaded with Karen to go down and calm the rowdy bunch.

Karen stood tall and confident, and in a wise voice beyond her years told the big kids that her brother didn’t mean what he said, and that they probably didn’t want to get in trouble for hitting him.

She surprised them, she said, by confounding their expectations of African American women. “They don’t even know me, but they have this preconceived idea that I’m black, I’m loud, I’m uneducated,” said Washington. “So I use that sort of persona then with educated language and I get people to listen.”

Within five minutes, she had talked the angry teenagers out of hitting her brother.

Now, at 55, Karen Washington uses similar conflict resolution techniques to solve bigger problems in her current Bronx neighborhood.  In the 21 years that she has lived in East Tremont, she has taken on tough issues, such as crack and cocaine and street violence.  She brings the same focus and passion to her latest mission — providing healthy food to low-income New Yorkers and using neighborhood gardens to create community and ultimately battle crime.

“The social issues intertwine with food,” she said. “When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family, you are going to buy the cheapest food items for your family and you see an increase in crime.  You need to feed your family.”

Washington created La Familia Verde, a coalition of 12 community gardens in East Tremont in 1992, and started a local Bronx farmer’s market where everyone could sell their produce. She joined the board of Just Food, an organization which connects local and urban farms with communities, and the Mary Mitchell Center, a community center blocks from her house.

When Washington was looking to find funding for the Mary Mitchell Center, she called the one person she knew could help, U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano.  She went to Washington, and explained how the center was going to fight crime by keeping kids of the street in after school activities, and increase job productivity by offering technology classes.

“He sees it,” said Washington. “He sees that people in low-income areas may not have the resources but we do have the knowledge and the power.”

Her passion for improving lives led her first to Hunter College, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in physical therapy.   By 1981, she had completed a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics, and began her career as a physical therapist.

Washington moved into 2161 Prospect Ave. in East Tremont from Harlem in 1985 to give her children, Kendra and Bryant, more space to play. The cozy row house seemed a perfect place to raise her little boy and girl, except for an empty lot across the street.  She was told developers were using the plot to build a row of houses similar to hers, but when they found too much bedrock in the soil, they abandoned the idea and the plot.

“Year after year, there was garbage and vans and stuff like that,” said Washington.    “If you live near garbage, people think that you are that garbage, and we are not garbage.”

Although she was working full-time as a physical therapist, Washington — with the help of her neighbor, Jose Lugo — set out to save the desolate patch of land.    By 1989, she had successfully petitioned Green Thumb, a city Parks and Recreations group, to help her transfer the city-owned plot to a community garden, the Garden of Happiness.

Neighbors flocked to the new garden to plant collard greens, mustard greens, kale, cantaloupe, corn, string beans and squash.  They spent hours comparing gardening tips, vegetables and stories about life in the Bronx.

“I learned they were having problems with health, schools, housing and jobs,”  she said.  “I felt that the community gardening work I do is great because it also helped bring out the social issues that were affecting the community, and they were huge.”

At first, Washington was hesitant about going to a community meeting.  She was a mother of two juggling a full time job and the management of the Garden of Happiness.    However, after much coaxing by a neighbor, she finally attended a Crotona Community Coalition meeting, and it changed her life.

“When I walked in there I saw at least 50 people talking about the same problems that were going on in the neighborhood,” she said.  “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not alone.’ ”

Washington became a regular at both the Crotona meetings and the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she presented solutions to the major issues the community was facing. When she was called upon, she marched up to the podium with her gray-streaked dredlocks swinging behind her, and in a firm tone gave solutions to community issues.

As she spoke, her eyes opened wide exuding the passion she felt for the cause.  Members would discuss issues with her after the meeting, and she would stand quietly looking at the floor, with her head tilted towards them listening attentively.

Kendra went on to become a school principal and Bryant an inspector for the Department of Health, and Washington focused more of her efforts on her community.

In 2003, she accepted the role of president of the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.  The Rev. Jai Dean of the Community Church, which is based in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, attributes the changes she has made to her ability to network and grab the right people’s attention.

“She was active, she knew the politicians, and she knew who to call to get things done,” he said.

Last year, she took her concerns to a City Council hearing.  There, she spoke about the problems she had encountered with the Green Thumb program.

“By the time she had finished her presentation, it was like we can all go home now,” said Dyanne Norris, principal administrative associate for Green Thumb.  “She was most articulate, and the one person who presented answers to the questions, and I was just overwhelmed.”

Washington focused her efforts on providing the tools her community would need to succeed. In 2005, a devastating fire in the Garden of Happiness reassured her that her community appreciated and needed the work she had done.

“We stood out there, and we were crying,” she said.  “Then the neighbors came by to pat us on the back and say ‘Don’t worry, we’ll build again.’ I knew right then and there how much the community loved that garden.”

She applied for the grant program at Orange Thumb, a garden tool making company, explaining the situation at the Garden of Happiness.  The application was accepted and the group was awarded $4,500 in cash and Home Depot gift certificates.

“That’s my passion,” she said. “I love to grow food.”

One rainy Sunday afternoon in October, Washington sat at her East Tremont kitchen, eating yogurt and granola, listening to WFAN. The Yankees were beating the Red Sox.

Ashley and Noodles, her two rescue cats, played at her feet.

She looked out her window at the Garden of Happiness, and smiled.

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