by Mia Garchitorena
Inside a renovated 100-year-old library within the South Bronx’s National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center at Community School 55, a healthy food program led by a local organization, the Green Bronx Machine, flourishes in a classroom that has bright green walls and is filled with lush greenery. Originally for high school students after school, the Green Bronx Machine’s educational program has grown to include kindergarteners through 12th graders, allowing students to directly impact their community by growing and distributing fresh food.
Year round, CS 55 students from prekindergarten to fifth grade grow fresh fruits and vegetables indoors, using hydroponic technology. They also harvest produce from the school’s outdoor community garden.
Every Tuesday, the students pack up bundles of their classroom-grown food and set them up outside of the school. Luke Paolantonio, Community Outreach Specialist, and Julia Smith, Community Outreach Assistant, both with Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities (IHCD) Service, pick up the food and deliver it to Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, the location of one of the IHCD’s eight food pantries in New York City. The pantries are run by the IHCD Food to Overcome Outcomes Disparities (FOOD) Program, which is overseen by MSK Community Outreach Manager Julia Ramirez. The school has provided fresh produce to Lincoln’s patients every week for the past two years.
“MSK’s FOOD program is creating a hub for patients to access food services that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” says Mr. Paolantonio. “A lot of people would be going hungry. This program provides a real-world impact.”
A symbiotic relationship has blossomed from this partnership: Students are inspired to grow fresh food for people with cancer and the patients are happy to receive food from children in their own neighborhood. The weekly food pantry has also helped mitigate these patients’ worries about not being able to access or afford the healthy foods that are recommended by their doctors.
“People with cancer shouldn’t have to make a choice between going to their appointment or feeding their family,” says Ms. Ramirez.
Expanding patient access to quality care and health-related resources is a strategic priority for MSK, and a key part of that is reaching out to underserved people with cancer in New York City. In June 2002, MSK established the City College of New York–Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Partnership for Cancer Research, which is funded by the National Cancer Institute, to address cancer disparities in underserved communities and bring more under-represented minorities into clinical trials.
“We discovered several years ago that there were really high rates of food insecurity among patients in these communities,” says Francesca Gany, Service Chief of the IHCD. Food insecurity, meaning not always having enough to eat, is an enormous problem for anyone, but it is particularly difficult for someone with cancer. “So we developed a medically tailored food pantry, which takes into account the nutritional needs of people with cancer, and co-located it at cancer clinics in these communities to try and bring some helpful emergency food resources to patients,” Dr. Gany explains. “Our research has found that this increases treatment adherence and improves quality of life for people with cancer.” Dr. Gany and the IHCD established these pantries in clinics serving a significant number of people with cancer who have limited access to food resources.
“One of the challenges was making fresh fruits and vegetables available through the program,” says Dr. Gany. “It’s something that our patients really wanted and certainly something that cancer care teams know is important for healing and prevention.” Studies have shown that fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as protein and other nutrients, provide important health benefits to people with cancer and improve their quality of life.
In exploring ways to address that challenge, former MSK employee Jeralyn Cortez connected the Green Bronx Machine with the IHCD to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to patients at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center.
Growing a Community
According to NYC.gov, residents of the South Bronx, which is part of what is considered the unhealthiest county in New York State, grapple with numerous issues that contribute to poor health. Many residents suffer from cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and respiratory issues, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma. These health problems are made worse by residents’ limited access to healthcare and healthy food, as well as their exposure to high levels of pollution.
Stephen Ritz, Founder of the Green Bronx Machine and a Bronx native, says that many of the students who participate in the program live in nearby public housing with a grandparent or elderly guardian who may themselves be affected by cancer or another chronic disease. In addition to increasing the students’ awareness of nutritious foods, the IHCD and Green Bronx Machine partnership has empowered them to help their neighbors, who may be in situations similar to that of their own caregiver or relative.
“We are growing food here, but it’s so much more with this partnership,” Mr. Ritz says. “For our little ones, having this catalyst of knowing that they are growing food to help people get well is really motivating them to come to school, eat well, be well, be civic-minded, and move from being apart from success to being a part of something so important to them.”
Dr. Gany and Jennifer Leng, an Assistant Attending in the IHCD Service, say that the IHCD is hoping to expand its food pantry program to other areas of the Bronx and continue working with the Green Bronx Machine to distribute fresh food to people with cancer.
“It’s gratifying that something so tangible can be brought into the community, to MSK, and to underserved patients at other hospitals,” says Dr. Leng.