Nov. 1, 2006

CCE student interns help nourish Brooklynites

As a mother watched her young daughter leap around mounds of pumpkins at the Red Hook Harvest Festival Oct. 21 in Brooklyn, N.Y., she whispered in awe to her husband, "This is the largest pumpkin field I have seen in my entire life." The "pumpkin field" was not a field at all, but part of a community-run farm that was covered with hay and strewn with pumpkins. Five short years ago, this thriving farm was just another asphalt lot in Brooklyn.

In May 2001, the only supermarket in Brooklyn's Red Hook section closed, leaving the community void of fresh produce. Added Value, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable development, partnered with several organizations, including Cornell Cooperative Extension-New York City (CCE-NYC), and seized the opportunity to create the Red Hook Farmers Market to sell fresh produce to local residents. In 2004, it converted an underused city park into a 2.75-acre farm on Beard Street to grow some of that food. Added Value hires and trains local youths to work the farm and in doing so, empowers them with responsibilities and skills that will better prepare them for an adult career.

"Added Value also supplies three local restaurants with greens grown by youth at their farm site in Red Hook, and composts not only the restaurants' food wastes but also local community food wastes, which are dropped off weekly. From this compost they produce their own growing media on site -- a model that demonstrates one way of positively responding to the problem of New York City's waste stream," said Linda Ameroso, an urban food extension educator at CCE-NYC.

CCE's Farmers' Market Nutrition Education Program works with farmers at markets and such New York City events as the Red Hook festival to promote fresh, locally grown produce, give out simple recipes, emphasize food safety, conduct healthy food demonstrations and engage consumers in hands-on, interactive learning activities.

At the Red Hook festival, for example, several students from Cornell and other universities interning at CCE-NYC showed some of the fair's 1,750 visitors how to read the sugar content on soda and juice containers at their station. Learning how to easily convert 4 grams of sugar on the label to one teaspoon of sugar, visitors measured how much sugar was in each serving of their favorite beverage.

"Two teenage girls were totally shocked; one literally said, 'Oh my god, I can't believe there is this much sugar in my Sprite. I drink one of those huge containers of Sprite every other day, which means I am drinking 30 teaspoons of sugar,'" said Niti Patel, a dietetics major at the New York Institute of Technology interning at CCE-NYC this semester. She smiled and added, "They will never again drink a soda without imagining that cup of pure sugar."

The students also gave demonstrations and healthy-eating tips to fair-goers, based on research conducted at Cornell. Visitors, for example, were able to see how quickly bacteria, which the students represented with dry lentils, grow on fresh meat, represented by lifelike meat models. The lesson learned: Use safer procedures, such as placing meat inside the refrigerator to defrost.

The students also gave cooking demonstrations while providing tips about healthy eating and the virtues of buying fresh, locally grown produce -- to a background of live musical performances ranging from traditional folk music to beatbox and improvised rap.

Julia Lang '08 is an intern at Cornell Cooperative Extension-New York Ciy this semester through Cornell's Urban Semester program.