Health / News

Hunts Point health center teaches by example

By Sarah Grieb

Project HOPE’s center on Hunts Point Avenue is itself a health ambassador. Established in September 2008, the center is designed to feel more like a home than a medical office. There are two big overstuffed red chairs and a couch, games and a refrigerator full of health food.

“Kids ask ‘Is this your home?’” said Ruth Santana, the center’s director.

The organization has formed a partnership with the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, and is one of the community organizations receiving food from the Heather Mills food donation of fresh produce and $1 million worth of soy-based meat substitutes. Santana makes sure that no one leaves hungry and anyone who participates in any kind of health- related activity gets food.

The center is very popular with the after-school crowd, since kids know they can always get a snack, she said.

At a spring health fair, two young girls walked in. One was eating a chocolate cookie. Karina Mercedes, a health educator whose eyes are magnets for junk food, spotted them. She offered to trade fresh fruit for the sweets. One girl picked up an apple, the other an orange. The cookie was dropped in the trash.

But, the girls were also carrying plastic bags from a bodega. Inside: candy. Mercedes showed the girls what to look for on the labels: sugar, fat and calories. Their purchase, she demonstrated, would fill a soda bottle half-full with sugar.

Mercedes walked the pair to a table where plastic replicas of common meals, including pizza, a grilled cheese sandwich and a hamburger are displayed. A rack alongside holds test tubes filled with the amount of fat in each of the dishes.

When Mercedes asks people to choose their favorite from the display, most people choose grilled cheese, thinking it’s healthier than a burger. In fact, it has more fat. So does even a small slice of pizza.

The girls left with goody bags filled with healthy alternatives to their candy.

Mercedes wasn’t surprised that they swapped their sugary snacks for healthy ones. But she understands how hard it can be for kids to change their diets. When they look at the display of fatty food, she said, they often tell her that’s what their school served for lunch.

A version of this article appeared in the August edition of the Hunts Point Express.

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