UPON LAUNCHING AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS YEAR, THIS COMMUNITYGALVANIZING HEALTHY EATING AND WELLNESS INITIATIVE IS TACKLING CHILDHOOD FOOD INSECURITY IN THE BOROUGH
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Food insecurity, defined as lacking consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life, is considered a silent crisis, plaguing 40 million Americans, including 10 million children. In Staten Island alone, an estimated 53,000 people (9% of the total population) live in food-insecure households, many of them school-aged children. Studies show that food is often the first elastic expense that’s cut, behind other necessities like rent, medication, and medical bills.
Staten Island University Hospital is fighting back. Its Community Health division, led by Senior Director Frank Morisano, leads several initiatives across the Island to expand access to healthy food, from patient assist programs to pop-up pantries. Its latest endeavor, Wellness on Wheels, aims to not only alleviate family food shortages, but to stir excitement in elementary school children around living an active, healthy lifestyle. On any given weekday in the North Shore, residents might spot the program’s white and purple van, filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, and recipe books, as it travels to a public school.
“There are, unfortunately, so many families on Staten Island experiencing food insecurity, so we pondered, ‘What can we do to introduce healthy eating to these families?’” noted Claudette Hill, administrative director of Community Health and a 25-year SIUH employee. “We want to inspire our children to live healthier lives. Many children are overweight due to eating junk or processed food. With Wellness on Wheels, we are teaching them the importance of proper nutrition, drinking water, and exercising, all in a fun, engaging, hands-on environment.”
The program first launched within the Northwell Health network three years ago at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens. As the pandemic rippled through the city, Northwell was forced to shutter many of its school-based nutrition programs, which sparked the concept behind Wellness on Wheels: using a food-truck-style van, the program could operate outdoors, thus complying with pandemic-era citywide health ordinances. The program was a success, and Morisano and Hill campaigned to bring the initiative to Staten Island. They received a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to launch the program in Title 1 schools throughout the North Shore beginning in January of this year.
The organizing team consists of Hill, who oversees all operations; a program coordinator, who manages scheduling and outreach; and a nutritionist, who travels to each school to lead the interactive learning experience. The sessions are designed to not only be educational, but inspirational, encouraging kids to experiment with different ingredients to build enthusiasm around healthier eating.
“Our nutritionist teaches the children about the fundamentals of MyPlate [the USDA’s current nutrition guide] and the different food items we should have on our plates: grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and dairy, plus the benefits of drinking water, practicing mindfulness, and how to be a fit and healthy kid,” explained Hill. “After that, each kid receives a healthy eating recipe book with recipes from the myplate.gov website. All recipes are in both English and Spanish.”
The recipe book is particularly close to Hill’s heart, as her 9-year-old granddaughter came up with the title: Healthy Eating Equals a Healthy Mind. “She said to me, ‘You can’t concentrate on your studies in class when you’re hungry,’” noted Hill.
Students also participate in a “grow” station, where they learn how to plant seeds and grow their own vegetables, fostering a hands-on connection and sense of ownership over their food choices. They are sent home with a pot, soil, and packet of green beans, along with a fresh vegetable bundle, such as carrots, and they are encouraged to return to class the next day to share how they incorporated the produce in last night’s dinner.
“The kids often come to class the next day with so much excitement to tell us what they made for dinner the night before,” said Hill. “We’ll hear soup, salad, carrot cake, and so on. They are so engaged. If we get even one kid to adopt healthy eating habits, this program will forever be a success.”
“It’s been so well received in the community,” added Morisano, who jokes that between Hill and himself, they know every one of the borough’s 500,000 residents. “When our team walks around a supermarket, kids from the program will come up to us with their parents to show us the fruits and vegetables in their carts and tell us which recipes they are making for dinner.”
The primary goal of Wellness on Wheels is to promote a healthier next generation, and Hill explained that begins with the children. Looking forward to next year, the team hopes to expand the program to additional neighborhoods in the borough. “The engagement piece is crucial to this program’s success,” she said. “We’re seeing these kids go home and push the pedal on healthy eating, encouraging their parents to cook with fresh fruits and vegetables. They are the ones driving the change toward a healthier community.”
Frank Morisano RN, MS
Senior Director-Community Health / Staten Island University Hospital-Northwell
1671 Hylan Boulevard / 718.226.1911 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay Healthy Because We CARE