Bringing Healthy Eating to the Hudson Valley

A bold, new initiative brings chefs, farmers and even priests to the table with clinicians.

By Melissa F. Pheterson

Modern medicine confirms the old-time notion of “an apple a day”: Healthy living depends on healthy eating. But for many in the Hudson Valley, foods that promote health are often too hard to find, too expensive and even at odds with ingrained family and cultural traditions.

To bridge its traditional healthcare role with promoting community wellness, the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth) has launched Food for Life, an initiative that expands the scope of its outreach. Focusing on the role of food in staying healthy and fighting disease, Food for Life taps into a rich supply of local resources – farms, kitchens, even pulpits – to raise awareness and lower barriers to a nutritious diet.

“Food for Life is key to WMCHealth’s ‘anchor institution’ approach,” says Sue Gerry, Senior Vice President for Strategic Alliances and Partnerships. Anchors include hospitals and academic institutions that are “embedded in the community and as rooted in the community as residents are.”

Mecca Santana, Senior Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement at WMCHealth, leads the program’s faith-based initiatives through a program called Faith and Flavor. Chefs visit churches, synagogues and mosques to showcase new and healthy ways to prepare popular and traditional meals.

“Our focus is on sustainable health and you can’t create that in isolation – or from behind a desk,” Santana says. “We want to meet you where you are: the bodega or barber shop, the church, school or homeless shelter.”

Food for Life aligns with a national movement for anchor institutions to cultivate wellness among those they serve, largely by addressing “food insecurity,” the term for limited or uncertain access to adequate and fresh food.

“Even in the United States, in 2018, food insecurity is more pervasive than anyone could imagine,” Gerry says. “Often, families are forced to choose between paying a mortgage or buying the nutritious foods they need. We want to shine a spotlight on this issue.”

Besides fighting food insecurity, the program will create education programs for patients, family members and the public, engaging not only clinicians but also spiritual leaders, educators, local business owners, prominent chefs and Hudson Valley farmers to showcase local produce.

“This is true community engagement: empowering, educating and providing tools and resources directly to community members, so they can take control of their own health,” Santana says. “This will do more than just treat disease; it will transform communities.”

The initiative builds on WMCHealth’s existing initiatives, such as partnerships with ShopRite Supermarkets, Inc. and Feeding Westchester; community gardens; and “pantry programs” that provide groceries to patients and families returning to homes without food.

“The healthier people are in the community, the less likely they are to develop serious healthcare needs,” Gerry says. “We want to expand this concept from our own backyard to all the communities into which we’ve expanded.”

This fall, WMCHealth will convene an advisory council to “aggregate resources, amplify our message, mobilize people to action, and bring green gardens and fresh foods to urban and underserved areas,” says Gerry. She hopes WMCHealth’s two medical villages, being constructed at WMCHealth’s Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis and at HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley in Kingston, will highlight Food for Life initiatives in their role as community health centers.

Meanwhile, Santana says churches in Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster and Orange counties will host Faith and Flavor programs in the fall.

“If we can partner with faith-based communities to change one or two habits – let’s bake instead of fry, let’s find a substitute for lard – that creates a domino effect,” Santana says. “Through partnerships, we’re empowering community members with a shared responsibility to keep ourselves healthy.” 

To learn more about the Food for Life initiative, email [email protected]