HARLEM — Three years ago Barbara Biscaino and her youngest daughter were living in a homeless shelter eating mostly fried and canned food. With no stove of her own, Biscaino relied on fast food and whatever she could assemble using a hot plate.
Biscaino, 45, has been a model of healthy eating since moving into Castle Gardens — The Fortune Society’s Harlem residence for formerly incarcerated adults and low-income families on West 140th Street — thanks to their Food and Nutrition Program.
The program provides residents with low-cost and easily accessible fruits and vegetables. The Fortune Society has teamed up with the Corbin Hill Road Farm and the Brooklyn Grange Farm, who distribute produce packages to Castle Gardens residents on a weekly basis. So far they have distributed more than 4,500 pounds of food — from corn and potatoes to eggplant.
In addition to the weekly produce packages and demonstrations, the program also includes cooking classes. Over the last few months, Biscaino and her 9-year-old daughter participated in a cooking class targeting ways to reduce salt, sugar, and fat. After each class Biscaino would run home to call her mother and brag about her culinary adventures.
“Ma, you know what I ate today?” Biscaino said, listing off new conquests like beets and quiche.
The classes not only helped Biscaino to explore new healthy foods, but it also helped her to test out new culinary techniques. She learned how to make homemade condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce, and she learned how to preserve vegetables while they’re still fresh. She also picked up ideas for substituting ingredients in recipes, which is especially useful since both she and her daughter have multiple food allergies.
“I was afraid to try something on my own,” Biscaino said. “With these classes I was able to try stuff and not be afraid.”
Sometimes grocery bags will arrive filled with familiar staples like potatoes, onions, and corn. Other times, the produce is like nothing Biscaino has ever seen, such as the white eggplant still sitting in her refrigerator. Until picking it up with her produce package, she didn’t know that such a vegetable even existed.
To help residents make peace with the more puzzling produce, weekly cooking demonstrations accompany the food delivery.
“If you’ve never seen a rutabaga, what do you do when it shows up in your food bag?”
asked The Fortune Society’s CEO JoAnne Page, explaining the importance of not only distributing the food but of giving residents the tools to incorporate it into their meals.
The experimentation with healthy fruits and vegetables has paid off. Biscaino was able to significantly lower the dosage of her blood pressure medication and is hoping to no longer need the medication soon.
During the presentation, Biscaino, her daughter, and fellow resident Alia Carpenter, 38, demonstrated how to make cantaloupe soup and green beans with cilantro and garlic. The simple recipes were peppered with fresh citrus and herbs. The chefs demonstrated how to prepare their dishes in front of a crowd of approximately 50. Afterwards, a spread was arranged for guests to sample the demonstrated recipes along with others homemade goodies like sweet potato and carrot muffins and vegetable empanadas.
The Fortune Society launched the program 2011 with the help of a $25,000 grant from the Aetna Foundation and an additional $119,279 from the New York State Department of Health.
With some of the nation’s highest obesity and asthma rates, Harlem can be a desert of healthy choices, but advocates have been pushing to change that.
Page said that great care was taken to construct the Castle Garden residences to be not only environmentally healthy, but also “a healthy building in every way."
“We built a healthy building but how do you build a healthy life within the building?"