Nutrition program aims to trim Mott Haven waistlines

Schools offer healthier fare for students

Red meat consumption has dropped nearly 20 percent at the Crotona Academy High School in Mott Haven so far this year after the introduction of turkey dogs, turkey burgers, juices and healthier alternatives to hot dogs, burgers and sodas.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Deborah Claudio, a youth advocate at the school. “They’ve eaten junk food all their lives. Many kids’ first reaction was ‘ewww health food.’ But we saw that if healthy food is out there, kids made informed choices.”

The dietary change stems from a new nutrition initiative overseen by the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Program (SoBRO), which recently won a $5000 grant from fast-food giant McDonald’s to grow its nutrition advocacy project, Healthy Living. The program aims to combat obesity and unhealthy food choices in South Bronx schools.

“We target school children because once they start eating healthy, they build up good eating habits that last a lifetime,” said Eva Lopez, program manager at SoBRO. The expanded program will include a nutrition workshop in Emolior Academy Middle School, a fitness walk in Crotona Park and the publication of a recipe book.

The program is part of an initiative McDonald’s launched last year to improve the quality of its food – and its image – including smaller portions of French fries and apple slices for dessert.

A group of owners of McDonald’s franchises in the tri-state area provided the grant. One member of the group, Cathie Perna, said the owners provided funds “to local organizations with grassroots projects that help people learn to eat better, whether in our restaurants or elsewhere.” Perna, who owns several Bronx branches of the fast-food titan, said the group picked SoBro because of the variety of its nutrition programs, and its emphasis on fitness.

“Five-thousand dollars isn’t a big amount, but if you don’t start with something, you can’t do anything,” said Lopez. “The important thing is that this funding will let us get started.”

She added that getting the project off the ground will help bring in other organizations to work on the project, such as the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, which has already committed to partnering on the program.

We make our workshops very hands on,” said Sandra Gucciardi, regional coordinator at of the E. 149th St.-based group, which will organize sessions at Emolior Academy.

If you’re sitting in a lecture and a professor goes blah, blah, blah, you can’t really learn anything,” she said. “We have activities and cooking lessons to make learning fun.”

We make sure the recipes we demonstrate in our nutrition workshops are simple and low cost, comprising local ingredients and brands. You don’t want to have recipes that require Whole Foods brands in a school in the Bronx,” she added.

Gucciardi said her favorite way of raising students’ awareness of their diet is to have them compare the fat content of a hamburger with that of a salad. Students calculate the fat in each dish from its ingredients. They then set aside a small white cube for every gram of fat that the burger has more than the salad. ”At the end, children look at the heap of cubes and exclaim ,’Oh my God, that’s 35 grams of fat more,’” she said.

Lopez flipped through the current version of SoBRO’s cookbook, ‘We Are the World: Healthy International Cookbook,’ which features recipes from different countries contributed by students and parents.

I contributed this recipe,” she said, laughing while pointing to a page. “Turns out this has the highest number of calories of all the recipes in the book.”