Recipes to Survive the Food Desert

by Vienna McLeod in the Department of Epidemiology and Co-Vice President of Communications for Students for Food Policy and Obesity Prevention (FPOP), MPH’ 16  


Inspired by Mailman’s Obesity Prevention Month (which started yesterday with a talk led by nutrition policy expert, Marion Nestle) I woke up this past Sunday morning, made myself a smoothie and then began to prep this week’s lunches, dinners, snacks, and fourth meals from three recipes I found on the New York Times website. All New Yorkers make decisions about how to spend their budget. I fall into a cohort of individuals who skip the apartment in Chelsea I can spend my dollars on the kind of food that feeds my body, mind, and soul. Even still, eating on a graduate student’s budget does not make this an easy task. Neither does living in what I would consider the food desert that is Washington Heights, but we’ll get to more of that later.

Spending the last several years becoming a more confident and creative “kitchen-ista,” I knew that a trip to the grocery mecca I call Whole Foods for necessities might be a little too expensive for my conscience. So I adapted a little here and there, made substitutions and omissions, and was still able to create some healthy and delicious dishes to start Obesity Prevention Month.

Pineapple and Millet Smoothie

Pineapple and Millet Smoothie Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Ancient grains and seeds have been resurrected after being crowded out for decades by processed and refined foods. People no longer fear tri-colored quinoa, amaranth, barley, bulgar, millet, chia, flax and hemp. These grains and seeds are re-emerging as the go-to not only for savory stir-fry, summer salads, or unique stews, but also in places you never would think, like smoothies and baked goods. Ancient grains like millet are a great source of fiber (typically lacking in the American diet) and are a source of various minerals and vitamins. This weekend I added ¼ cup of cooked yellow millet to my morning blend. With this gluten free grain I got a boost of protein, fiber, B-vitamins, and magnesium along with a mild sweet and nutty flavor.

Fresh Pinapple

Blended with pineapple, agave, fresh lime and a little ice I was feeling tropical despite the snow squall this Sunday. The bulk section of Whole Foods is a great spot to save and stock up on nutritionally dense ancient grains and seeds. Instead of purchasing a 1 pound bag of Bobs Red Mill brand grains for $10 from my local grocer, I can spend the same amount on bulk items and have multiple grains and seeds for the week.


Full recipe at New York Times Cooking

Cauliflower, Potato & Quinoa Patties

I was pretty excited about this next recipe. When I was walking along the row of bulk bins at Whole Foods, I made sure to grab plenty of tri-colored quinoa for this savory dish. Cooked and tossed with steamed colorful potatoes and purple cauliflower, I molded some savory starches, a bit of potassium, and the rainbow of protein, 8 essential amino acids, fiber, and calcium in quinoa, along with delectable flavonoids called anthocyanins (from the purple cauliflower) into a patty. Spiced with cumin, cilantro, and masala, I rolled my veggie patties in black-and-white sesame and pan fried them in olive oil.

Cauliflower, Potato & Quinoa Patties Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

I had to put my creativity to work with this dish. The NYT recipe called for ingredients like grape seed oil and nigella seeds, both of which were too pricey to be worth the buy. I decided to make up for their loss by substituting white for purple cauliflower and tossing in some chia seeds I had in my cabinet. Recipes are not religious texts, so my advice: don’t be afraid to test new recipes adapted to work with what you know, can afford, and already have.


Full recipe at New York Times Cooking

Bulgur with Brussels Sprouts

Ancient grains

The ancient grain kick continues. For only $10, I was able to buy enough millet, bulgur, quinoa, and a variety of seeds to feed me for multiple lunches and dinners in the bulk section of Whole Foods. Bulgur is essentially cracked wheat. When cooked, it swells and consumes the flavors of sauces and spices that you cook with. I used this grain as the base of my next dish, adding a foundation of fiber, potassium, iron and zinc. Topped with diced heirloom tomatoes, balsamic roasted Brussels sprouts, onion, paprika and colorful peppercorns, I had a dish that felt as nourishing as the Mediterranean sun.

Bulgur with Brussels Sprouts Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Full recipe at New York Times Cooking

Like many Public Health students, I believe eating quality food is critically important to enjoying the amazing capabilities of the human body and staving off many chronic diseases. While it is easy to find the latest delectable New York Times recipe rife with obscure combinations of ingredients that pack a powerful health punch, it is hard to come by affordable and fresh ingredients in this area that taste and look desirable. I find it’s unacceptable that this food dessert causes people like myself to travel outside of Washington Heights to meet quality nutritional goals.

Since arriving at 171st and Ft. Washington Ave. in August, I have been increasingly disappointed and discouraged by these food options in my area. It is much more difficult to shop and eat as a mostly vegetarian person, especially one who prefers local produce and natural or organic products. Even my local omnivore roommates have a hard time finding poultry or beef that comes from local sources, let alone products raised humanely and without antibiotics.

While I am willing to spend extra money and travel further to feed myself with nutritional food, I know that many people do not have the luxury or means to source quality nutrition and this is reflected in many of the poor health statistics found in The Heights. While the opportunities are lacking, there has been some improvement as new grocers such as Cherry Tree and established markets like La Rosa have begun to change the food environment of The Heights by bringing better products to the community.

Our job as members of any community is to voice our food opinions through our dollars. Unfortunately, spending our dollars at Whole Foods does not demand fresher food options in Washington Heights, but rather encourages the status quo. We should, whenever possible, encourage local businesses that have the products we want through our spending. A message from this spring’s TEDx Manhattan 2015 event: Changing the Way We Eat, comes to mind, “Eating is a political act.” Every dollar we spend is a choice; every dollar we spend is vote. Bringing your votes home is not an easy shift, but taking small steps, like occasionally shopping at stores like Cherry Tree or La Rosa, can help bring the products we want to The Heights, and improve the health of those around us.




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