Cooking Eggplant and Winning Health Bucks

Walking through Tremont Park in the East Tremont section of the Bronx on Tuesdays this fall feels a little like walking onto the set of a Food Network prep kitchen. Among the tents of fresh cut herbs, jalapenos, apples and peaches, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is offering free cooking and nutrition classes to shoppers who are eligible for food stamps.

Classes are held every Tuesday at La Familia Farmers Market on the corner of East Tremont Avenue and LaFontaine Avenue from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m as part of New York City’s Stellar Farmers Markets Initiative. The city program provides a place for shoppers to learn how to prepare quick, inexpensive recipes using fresh ingredients that can be purchased at any of New York’s more than 120 Farmers Markets, 32 of which are in the Bronx.

In addition to cooking demonstrations, followed by yummy free samples, nutrition class attendees who fill out a quick survey receive a $2 New York City Health Bucks coupon that is redeemable at most New York City Farmers’ Markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Food Stamp recipients also earn a $2 Health Bucks coupon for every $5 spent using federal Food Stamps at participating New York City Farmers’ Markets.

On August 28th, the subject of the Stellar Farmers’ Market nutrition class was how to interpret nutrition fact labels. The class covered how to determine the proper portion size of an ingredient and where to find the percent daily value of fats, vitamins and minerals on a nutrition label.

Class participants scanned sample nutrition labels for milk, cheese, brown rice, and corn tortillas to check on the percent daily value of sodium and fiber each food contained. After reviewing several nutrition labels aloud, the instructor and a demonstration cook prepared a simple carrot salad. The instructor pointed out the recipe costs only 57 cents per serving and packs a powerful punch of nutrients while containing relatively few calories.

Nora Johns, a 62-year-old, unemployed East Tremont resident, attended the class for the second time and brought a friend from her jobs training course. When Johns didn’t see enough people crowding around the New York City Health tent just prior to the class start time she went into the East Tremont McDonalds and started recruiting people away from their double cheeseburgers and fries to come out to the nutrition class.

Following class, Johns collected her $2 Health Bucks coupon and headed for the Farmers Market tents.

“It’s fantastic that somebody is taking time out to teach people who don’t get this stuff. Learn something new everyday,” Johns gushed as she walked toward the apple bin.

Shoppers can choose from, among other things, bright purple eggplant, tricolored heirloom tomatoes and aromatic basil along six tents stocked full of fresh items displayed in delicate woven wood bins. In addition to cash, La Familia Verde Farmers Market vendors accept New York City Health Bucks coupons, federal Food Stamps and New York State Women, Infant, and Children vouchers as payment for fresh, locally-grown produce. New York State’s Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides checks to Women, Infants and Children program participants in order to expand access to nutritious, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

Griselda Pineda, a 19-year-old student who lives across the street from La Familia Verde Farmers’ Market with her mother, comes every week to learn how to cook new things and to get her Health Bucks coupon. ”I come every Tuesday because they teach you how to cook healthy things and stuff like that. I didn’t know any of that stuff before,” she says.

Pineda admits she still has some work to do before she can replicate the cooking demonstrator’s slicing and dicing tricks, “I try to cook the recipes but they don’t always come out the way they do here,” she says.

Like many of the workshop attendees, Pineda likes to use her Health Bucks coupons at the market the minute that class is over. Following class Pineda was on a mission for the freshest carrots. She also grabbed some basil, a key ingredient in last week’s salsa recipe.

The Stellar Farmers’ Market program is the only federal Food Stamp educational nutrition program at farmers’ markets in the nation. In 2011, nutrition classes were taught at 18 markets throughout New York City distributing Health Bucks to more than 15,000 nutrition workshop participants, according to a New York City report on the Stellar Farmers’ Market and Health Bucks initiatives.

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