Inspiring Healthy Eating in East Harlem

01/23/2008 01:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

East Harlem and East LA may be a continent apart, but they have one geographic trait in common: they're both "food deserts," i.e., neighborhoods where it's often easier to buy drugs and guns than greens or oranges. Not coincidentally, residents of both places also suffer disproportionately high rates of diabetes and obesity, as do inner city communities all across the nation.

Our warped agricultural policies have created a two-tier food chain in which fresh, healthy produce has become a luxury for affluent consumers while low-income families fill their pantries and fridges with nutritionally bankrupt commodity crop-based processed crap subsidized by our tax dollars. We're gonna get stuck with the tab for an awful lot of insulin shots, too, if we don't start giving folks an alternative to this diabetes-inducing diet.

Everyone from community gardeners to policy makers is scrambling to bring more fruits and vegetables into underserved urban communities. But that's only half the battle. Raw food may be all the rage from Santa Monica to Soho, but most of us still prefer to sit down to a nice, hot meal, even if we can't figure out how to prepare it ourselves. People who've come to rely entirely on convenience foods and take-out don't know what to make of--or make with--fresh fruits and vegetables.

But what if somebody handed them a nifty little cookbook chock full of easy-to-make recipes for wholesome comfort foods? I mean, just gave it away, for nothing?

In East Harlem, somebody's doing just that--Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose Go Green East Harlem Cookbook was published today by Jones Books. This clever cookbook, full of simple, tasty recipes printed in both English and Spanish, was produced in collaboration with the non-profit Community Fund for Manhattan, who spent $54,000 to print 8,000 copies of the cookbook and will give it away to East Harlem residents at community events (the rest of us can buy it online or in the bookstore for $17.95).

I know what you're thinking; politicians and vegetables have not, historically, been a great alliance. Remember Ronald Reagan's ketchup-as-a-second-vegetable debacle? And President Bush the First made it fashionable to bash broccoli. Our current president's preferred snack is said to be slabs of processed cheese on white bread.

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, took a staunchly pro-produce position, recommending that we use meat merely as "a condiment for the vegetables," as Michael Pollan notes in his own "eater's manifesto," In Defense of Food, which also advocates a plant-based diet.

Our Founding Father-Foodie would be delighted by the Go Green East Harlem Cookbook, which features 68 ethnically diverse, uniformly yummy recipes donated by East Harlem chefs, community leaders, and other locals who wanted to share their love of good, healthy food with their culinarily-challenged neighbors. There are dishes that include fish, poultry, or meat, but the emphasis is on fresh-from-the-farmers'-market produce.

The book also features savvy advice from Scott Stringer on his own specialty--take-out. The Manhattan Borough President confesses that he himself doesn't cook, but Stringer's "Top Ten Takeout Tips" for how to ensure that the food you're eating is healthy even when you have to outsource your meals could be the most valuable resource in the entire book for those who can't, or won't, take the time to cook.

Other helpful advice includes dietary guidelines from a doctor and how to get your kitchen set up so you'll have what you need on hand to whip up a batch of Sweet Potatolicious or Soulful Stuffed Sole. But though The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook is intended to inspire culinary novices, it's a blueprint for anyone looking to cook fast, healthy meals featuring fresh foods.

Normally, I wouldn't want a politician in my kitchen any more than I'd want him or her in my bedroom, but for Scott Stringer, I'm willing to make an exception. Kudos to him and his team for compiling a cookbook to nourish our underserved neighbors, and the rest of us, too.

Originally posted no