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Teens Give Nutrition Lessons in the Waiting Room of a Bronx Hospital

By Patrick Wall | August 14, 2012 6:35am

MORRISANIA — In a crowded waiting room at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital last week, all eyes were on three young women standing at the front of the room.

Estefania Diaz, 19, had plopped a handful of carrots atop a plastic cart and was peeling them. Vanessa Lee Tejada, 22, was arranging some signs that had been painted on the backs of pizza boxes and Kori Petrovic, 29, was staring at the rows of expressionless faces and smiling.

“Hi everybody,” Petrovic said. “You must be wondering what we’re doing here.”

She explained that they were presenting a free nutrition workshop as part of a program run by Morrisania high schools and the environmental nonprofit GrowNYC, where she works as an outreach coordinator.

Diaz and Tejada had both become connected with the work at school, and continued after graduation.

The program offers six-week summer internships in which students are taught to garden, cook healthy meals and manage a weekly farmers market.

As Diaz sautéed the carrots along with some kale, Petrovic in English and Tejada in Spanish told the crowd of about two dozen adults to prepare for an oral exam — the “McDonald’s IQ Test.”

“Which one do you think has more calories?” asked Petrovic, the program's outreach coordinator.

Tejada held up a poster painted with a McDonald’s burger, the Angus Bacon and Cheese, next to the restaurant’s Big Breakfast, which includes hotcakes, eggs, sausage, a biscuit and hash browns.

The audience was silent. Finally, someone ventured a guess — the burger.

Wrong. 790 calories in the Angus versus a whopping 1150 in the breakfast — more than half the recommended 2,000 daily calories for an adult, Petrovic noted.

With each fast-food riddle, the crowd grew more engaged, calling out guesses and reacting to the stats with gasps and groans.

When the women asked whether a 32 oz. Hi-C Orange Lavaburst drink or a McDonald's triple-thick chocolate milkshake contained more sugar, Nilda Bell, 40, who sat stoically knitting at the side of the room, mumbled, “Chocolate.”

She was right — the shake packs 40 teaspoons of sugar, the suggested amount for four days, into a single over-sized cup, Petrovic said.

Eventually, the patients were offered samples of the carrot-kale concoction, which most eagerly accepted.

The Bronx leads the city in its rates of obesity and diabetes and its residents eat fewer fruits and vegetables and drink more sugary beverages per day than New Yorkers in any other borough, according to the Health Department.

After their first presentation, the women moved to another waiting room, where Tejada sliced avocados to make fresh guacamole and the assembled patients learned how much sodium is stored in five Chicken Selects strips — more than half a day's recommended amount at 1,240 milligrams.

When Diaz held up a glass Snapple Kiwi-Strawberry juice bottle that was empty, aside from 14 teaspoons of sugar, the amount that beverage contains, Earl Fyfield, 56, a large man in a purple polo shirt, bolted upright in his chair.

“I always thought they said juice was healthy for you,” said Fyfield, who is trying to shed 50 of his 315 pounds.

Eladio Valerio, 50, a chef, said that if more people saw such presentations, they’d buy less junk food.

“Ninety-nine percent of people don’t read the labels and see how bad it is,” Valerio said. “If more people knew, they wouldn’t eat it.”

The workshop had that effect on Deborah Williams, 49, a receptionist at the hospital, who pointed out a small Styrofoam cup next to her computer that was filled with salad — her lunch.

“Normally, this would be meat packed with cheese,” Williams said.

But after the women’s twice-weekly display of the Big Mac’s fat content, Williams went for the greens.

The presentations have even influenced the people giving them.

Tejada, who studies psychology at City College, now drinks less soda and avoids honeybuns — the bodega variety contains 60 ingredients, she noted.

Diaz, who plans to study radiology at LaGuardia Community College, has started making fresh vegetable soup for her family.

"The internship really gave me a different perspective on things," said Diaz, including how "to keep my body more healthy."

The waiting rooms' crowds may have learned a similar lesson, as a passerby noted when she overheard Diaz last week giving some patients her healthy-eating pitch.

"Oh that's good!" the woman said. "That will keep a lot of people out of the hospital."