US (NY): MSK food program brings fresh food to underserved people

Inside a renovated 100-year-old library within the South Bronx’s National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center at Community School 55, a healthy food program led by a local organization, the Green Bronx Machine, flourishes in a classroom that has bright green walls and is filled with lush greenery. Originally for high school students after school, the Green Bronx Machine’s educational program has grown to include kindergarteners through 12th graders, allowing students to directly impact their community by growing and distributing fresh food. 

Year round, CS 55 students from prekindergarten to fifth grade grow fresh fruits and vegetables indoors, using hydroponic technology. They also harvest produce from the school’s outdoor community garden. 

Every Tuesday, the students pack up bundles of their classroom-grown food and set them up outside of the school. Luke Paolantonio, Community Outreach Specialist, and Julia Smith, Community Outreach Assistant, both with Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities (IHCD) Service, pick up the food and deliver it to Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, the location of one of the IHCD’s eight food pantries in New York City. The pantries are run by the IHCD Food to Overcome Outcomes Disparities (FOOD) Program, which is overseen by MSK Community Outreach Manager Julia Ramirez. The school has provided fresh produce to Lincoln’s patients every week for the past two years.

“MSK’s FOOD program is creating a hub for patients to access food services that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” says Mr. Paolantonio. “A lot of people would be going hungry. This program provides a real-world impact.”

A symbiotic relationship has blossomed from this partnership: Students are inspired to grow fresh food for people with cancer and the patients are happy to receive food from children in their own neighborhood. The weekly food pantry has also helped mitigate these patients’ worries about not being able to access or afford the healthy foods that are recommended by their doctors. 

“People with cancer shouldn’t have to make a choice between going to their appointment or feeding their family,” says Ms. Ramirez. 

Expanding patient access to quality care and health-related resources is a strategic priority for MSK, and a key part of that is reaching out to underserved people with cancer in New York City. In June 2002, MSK established the City College of New York–Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Partnership for Cancer Research, which is funded by the National Cancer Institute, to address cancer disparities in underserved communities and bring more under-represented minorities into clinical trials.

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