When I first moved to New York a decade ago, I lived in a rickety walk-up apartment building at 33rd Street and Third Avenue complete with slanted floors, dingy carpets, and an embarrassing flow of cockroaches I fruitlessly tried to ward off. Despite these unpleasant visitors, I insisted on nurturing my passion for wholesome cooking. While I had my pick of major chain grocery stores, it was a hike to any specialized health food store (this was also pre-Whole Foods). Recently, a friend introduced me to an innovative mom and pop health shop located on Third Avenue and 36th Street that would have filled the void and more at the time had they not opened in 2009.
This lovely store, which is called HealthSmart and owned by a kind Indian woman from Calcutta named Meena Dam and her husband, is now filling another void. They are striving to bring a greater awareness of health and well-being to the greater New York community, including the school systems. As I’ve learned from Meena, she and her team feel it’s an important responsibility to do so. She also has a greater mission: to mobilize health stores nationwide to do more community outreach programs, especially with children.
Sadly, it’s probably not surprising news that the obesity rate in children in America has more than tripled over the past 30 years. Today, an average of about 20 percent of children (age 6 to 11) and adolescents (age 12 to 19) are obese nationwide. According to the New York City Department of Health, one in every five kindergarteners is obese. The city also reports that nearly half of the city’s elementary school kids are beyond healthy weight, slightly higher than the national average of some 32 percent. In brief, being overweight or obese as a child can pose minor to very serious health risks.
In my opinion, educating children (and even parents) about health and well-being is indispensably empowering and potentially life changing. I know my feelings stem from firsthand experience. I have such deep appreciation and gratitude for my mother who always made nutritious, home-cooked food a top priority in our house. Likewise, I cultivated decent culinary skills as my participation as a young sous chef was always encouraged and appreciated.
With this background, I celebrate Meena’s efforts to offer hands-on learning experiences to city kids by hosting in-store visits. In addition to various activities and an in-depth exploration of the food pyramid, the kids get to taste fresh carrot juice made by the store’s chef Lulu (HealthSmart has a lovely vegan lunch bar). Meena told me how touched she was when a 6-year-old child sent her mother to HealthSmart to shop for multivitamins and fresh veggies after one of these field trips. In addition to the mind-expanding field trips, HealthSmarts hosts a number of lectures and health book readings open to the public each month.
I invite you to join in Meena’s efforts toward promoting positive food awareness and reform. What can you do to take action in your community? What resources are at your disposal? Do you have a health store interested in giving back? Is there a way to participate in the fight for public school food reform?
Remember, even the smallest positive gestures can have powerful resonance over time. Let’s work together.
Feel free to share your ideas here.
Oh! If you find yourself on Third Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets, stop into HealthSmart to say hello to Meena.