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Cooking from a new menu

Fresh tomatoes on sale at the Cypress Hills Youthmarket.

Sales are up at the Youthmarket in Cypress Hills—the farm-fresh tomatoes are so popular they’re consistently gone by the end of the day.

Since 2011, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp. (CHLDC) has run the market from July to November to provide ripe fruits and fresh vegetables to residents of the East Brooklyn neighborhood and part-time jobs to local youth.

Year to year, sales have been improving, but this summer they’ve taken a huge jump. “We’re seeing a 90 percent increase in sales from last year,” says Cassandra Flechsig, CHLDC’s community healthy food advocate. “We’ve got a lot of new energy, and the market is thriving.”

Flechsig’s position is a new one at CHLDC, funded through Communities for Healthy Food, a program at LISC New York that launched in early 2014.

Supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, Communities for Healthy Food is helping CHLDC and three other New York community development corporations integrate access to healthy and affordable food into their existing work. The program enhances the capacity of these community groups, funding new activities, expanding existing programs and finding able partners.

Cypress Hills is a diverse neighborhood, where six in ten residents speak a language other than English in the home and about a third of the households are below the poverty line.

With more than 400 employees, CHLDC is a well-established community development corporation that offers everything from after-school programs to workforce development. The CDC’s portfolio includes more than 250 units of affordable rental housing and a dozen storefront commercial units.

The Youthmarket, run in partnership with Grow NYC, is part of an ongoing initiative at CHLDC: Cypress Hills Verde. The neighborhood-wide program is dedicated to making Cypress Hills a more livable, sustainable community, from healthy eating to energy efficiency to urban farming.

LISC New York City has worked closely with CHLDC—providing seed funding for the Youthmarket, for example. It knew that the CDC’s many programs and assets, close ties to residents, and commitment to decreasing neighborhood health disparities made for a perfect partner for Communities for Healthy Food.

“Cypress Hills has a real commitment to this issue,” says Colleen Flynn, the green and healthy neighborhoods director for LISC New York City. “The Communities for Healthy Food program is allowing Cypress Hills to move beyond one-off projects and respond more comprehensively to local needs and opportunities and bake healthy food access strategies into every aspect of their community development work.”

Many Approaches, One Goal

The Youthmarket offers more than tomatoes, corn and peaches, which Flechsig says are always popular. Getting more leafy and green vegetables into people’s diet isn’t as simple as putting them out for sale, though.

“A lot of people want to eat healthy, but they say they don’t know how to prepare something like kale,” Flechsig says.

And so the market has started cooking demonstrations, run by local residents trained and paid a stipend to present a healthy recipe from their kitchen. The demonstrations are bi-lingual and designed to be interesting and fun. And after the demo is done, the crowd gets to eat free samples. Participants are given a $2 Health Buck and assistance with SNAP (food stamps) enrollment.

The demonstrations have proven so popular that CHLDC is now also running them for residents at their senior housing center and parents at their child care center.

Alyssa Hoyle, the former food access outreach coordinator at Cypress Hills through LISC’s AmeriCorps Program, at the official launch of the Communities for Healthy Food program.

A LISC AmeriCorps Member helps coordinate CHLDC’s neighborhood-wide outreach and awareness campaign around healthy eating. That has included talking with parents of kids at the child care center, the managers at the facility and members of the CDC’s network of home child care providers about the food they serve—how it’s prepared, what’s in it, where it’s from.

A similar set of conversations has started with the owners of local restaurants and delis about healthy options, from low-sodium meals to multi-grain bread, part of a NYC Department of Health initiative.

Flechsig and her team also designed a colorful “Fulton Food Guide” of healthy eating options along the neighborhood’s main corridor. Like the cooking demonstrations and the outreach activities, the guide is funded by the Communities for Healthy Food program. 

Next up: Bringing in a retail expert to discuss possible infrastructure changes for the corner stores and bodegas that are tenants in some of CHLDC’s commercial units so they can offer more healthy food.

Growing fresh produce in the raised beds at the People's Garden.

Like many low- and moderate-income urban neighborhoods, Cypress Hills has a lot of underutilized space: Thirty percent of the land parcels in the community are vacant, underused or brownfields. 

CHLDC’s Urban Agriculture program sees that as an opportunity. The program—funded through the USDA Community Food Projects—gives advice and other support to half a dozen community gardens in Cypress Hills and is working to build another four.

The crown jewel of the Urban Agriculture program is the People’s Garden, which opened in 2012. The site has dozens of plots and raised beds for residents and students at local schools, a chicken coop that produces organic eggs, a greenhouse for seed production, composting and more.

“Residents are learning about how to grow their own food, how to grow healthy food,” says Shai Lauros, CHLDC’s director of community development. “Plus it’s economic development, it’s leadership development—and the land is productive and not just empty lots.” 

Building with Health in Mind

This summer, CHLDC took another big step forward in its commitment to a sustainable Cypress Hills with the announcement of the Pitkin-Berriman Housing Development, a mix of retail and affordable housing that will bring new life to a stretch of one of the neighborhood’s main commercial corridors.

Located on a brownfield site and steps away from a subway station—and just blocks from several other lines—the project is a classic example of transit-oriented development.

LISC New York City has been a partner in the development every step of the way, from providing the CDC with funds from its NYC Acquisition Loan Fund to purchase the land in 2011 to connecting CHLDC to the New York-Connecticut Transit-Oriented Housing Incentive Fund, a joint project of the New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium and LISC. 

The anchor tenant will be a Key Foods, fulfilling CHLDC’s goal from the first discussions of the project to bring in a supermarket for the underserved community.

CHLDC staff have been working with Key Foods on healthy food options, and the store will be participating in the city’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program (FRESH), which offers tax incentives for stores that meet a set of criteria for offering nutritious food.

Students at a six-week cooking series for CHLDC Counselors in Training.

“We collected significant data and community input before the program launched to evaluate how each CDC’s assets relate to the community, from where people can buy food to health centers to school-based gardens. In their strategic plans, each CDC created a proposed set of healthy food strategic interventions that align with their real estate assets, organizational strengths, community needs, and other neighborhood-based resources, services and partners,” Flynn says.

Both Flechsig and Lauros emphasize that bringing more healthy foods to Cypress Hills is an ongoing, constantly improving project.

The cooking demonstrations have gone so well, for instance, they’re trying something new this fall: A six-week cooking series at local school IS 302 for "Counselors in Training" (CITs), young people who are learning how to take on additional leadership roles within CHLDC. The plan is for the CITs to then integrate what they've learned into the CHLDC programs, like after-school programs and day care centers.

“It builds on the community-chef demonstrations, but the students will be doing the cooking this time,” Flechsig says. “It’s yet another way to spread the word about healthy eating.”

Posted in New York, Health & Wellness

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