Interview with Children’s Aid: Go!Healthy Food Box Program

by NYC Food Policy Editor

written by Sania Kahn and Sycamore May

Go!Healthy is a Children’s Aid program that ignites enthusiasm for nutritious eating among youth and their families while also equipping them with tools for embracing wholesome, energetic lives. Children’s Aid provides comprehensive support to children, youth, and their families in targeted high-need New York City neighborhoods. Children’s Aid’s Go!Healthy program offers cooking lessons, gardening activities, and educational workshops on nutrition at Children’s Aid schools, early childhood centers, and other sites throughout New York City.

The Go!Healthy Food Box program provides access to affordable, high-quality fruits and vegetables  in Harlem, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and Staten Island. The program is one of several initiatives that Go!Healthy operates as part of its SNAP-Ed programming. People can purchase a pre-packed bag of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables for $10 (or $5 with EBT). Each bag contains $20 worth of farmers’-market-quality produce. Payment options include cash, debit/credit cards, Electronic Benefits Transfers (EBT), or Health Bucks coupons (incentives distributed by the NYC Health Department to be used for buying fresh, local produce)  

Individuals pay one week in advance to guarantee that  a bag is reserved, and the staff reserves a few extra bags for people who did not pay in advance. In addition to the boxes, staff also offer other seasonal items such as honey, maple syrup, eggs, and fruits like apples or pears from regional farmers and producers. . At the pick-up location, staff host a Go!Healthy nutrition workshop that includes a cooking demonstration and tasting using the ingredients in that week’s food box. People are encouraged and incentivized to stay for these demos. All participants  receive Health Bucks, which they can use to buy food boxes or fresh fruits and vegetables from their local farm stand. 

Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to talk about the Children’s Aid Go!Healthy Food Box program with us! What makes this program different from those of other non-profits with similar missions?

Children’s Aid: The Go!Healthy Food Box program encapsulates Children’s Aid’s whole-child approach, in which we strive to combat childhood poverty with services and programs that touch every part of their lives. Access to fresh, healthy food – which we see as a food-justice issue – plays a critical role in Go!Healthy’s working to implement wider policy, system, and environmental changes. Our Food Box distributions take place in communities with the greatest barriers to high-quality fruits and vegetables: Harlem, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and Northern Staten Island. In addition to addressing food access, our team of Go!Healthy nutritionists teach workshops and host cooking demonstrations at Food Box distribution locations that are open to the whole community. We complement access with education, and participants report that they feel more enthusiastic and confident about preparing healthy meals at home for their families. 

Part of what makes Food Box such an exciting initiative at Children’s Aid is that we are able to set up distributions in places where Go!Healthy is already deeply embedded. Our program operates in public spaces directly outside of Children’s Aid community centers, health clinics, and community schools where we have long hosted health-focused programs like scratch-made school meals and snacks as well as family-nutrition workshops. Go!Healthy staff have built trust and rapport with families at these sites, and Food Box becomes a natural extension of the SNAP-Ed work we’re doing there. This is especially true at our community schools like CS 211 at the Whitney Young Jr. Campus in the South Bronx where families receive wraparound services including after-school programs, parent engagement, health services, and much more. Food Box participants learn about our program from providers at the school-based health clinic and parent coordinators at the community school, thus connecting  them to resources that can help foster their children’s academic success.  

FPC: How has the Food Box program changed from the time when it was first started, and where do you see it going in the next 10 years? 

CA: At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Go!Healthy staff courageously mobilized to take the Food Box program from a comparatively small operation in a few locations to organizing mass distributions throughout three boroughs. In fact, the program’s reach increased tenfold from March 2020 through the end of 2021. While the need and desire for affordable fresh, local produce persists in all of the communities where we offer Food Box, we are now better able to strategize proactively about the program’s future. 

Our vision for the Food Box program can be summed up in one word: community. We hope the program can serve as a gathering space and resource for the community much in the way that well-established farmers markets bring people together. Our next steps involve asking program participants what they could benefit from – perhaps having staff available to connect community members to benefits like SNAP and Medicaid, or inviting active members to join Children’s Aid in its advocacy work around expanding early childhood services or school-based health centers. Over all, we feel well established but excited about what the future could hold. 

FPC: What are major ways the Go!Healthy Food Box aligns with the idea that “food is medicine”?

CA: Go!Healthy runs a Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) as part of our SNAP-Ed intervention that works in very close collaboration with Food Box. Families of children enrolled in Children’s Aid’s programs such as early childhood and behavioral health are in constant communication with staff about their needs and the ways we can support their well-being. If a family with a diet-related health condition indicates that they are experiencing food insecurity, staff will help connect them to FVRx. Those families receive a weekly free Food Box and are invited to join  other FVRx participants in a virtual nutrition workshop where they learn creative and effective ways to enrich their health. 

Organizations across the country are successfully implementing FVRx interventions, and Go!Healthy is in a unique position to contribute given the number of touchpoints Children’s Aid has with families in our schools and early childhood centers, as well as our community and school-based health clinics. We recognize that Children’s Aid families and staff represent global cultures that have understood and practiced food as medicine for millennia. We are pleased that funders and policymakers are beginning to codify food in this way so that more people may have access.

FPC: What are some of the barriers or challenges participants face, and how do you address them?

CA: Time, money, and transportation continue to be the major barriers our Food Box participants must face even when they are seriously committed to healthy eating behaviors. We are able to offer the Food Box at cost – meaning that we sell the fruits and vegetables at the same price we paid GrowNYC to purchase them. We also participate in the Department of Health’s Half Off Farm Box program so that EBT users can purchase the Food Box at half the price ($5). And participants who attend our on-site nutrition workshops receive Health Bucks coupons that they can use toward the cost of their Food Box or to purchase fresh produce from our farmstand. 

Creating time and easing transportation costs for families is often more challenging.
We aim to offer Food Box distributions at schools and during after-school programs so that families can pick up their kids and food at the same time. Still, Children’s Aid continues to explore additional avenues for combatting these obstacles – for example, leveraging healthcare dollars to subsidize food costs for Medicaid patients. Often we are able to offer one-off solutions like subsidized MetroCards, but these barriers have larger, systemic roots that need policy change, particularly around universal childcare, segregated neighborhoods and schools, and income inequality.

FPC: What impact have the Go!Healthy initiatives had on families and individuals who participate? Have you identified ways to ensure that families practice healthy eating outside of the program?

CA: The youth and families who participate in Food Box and our nutrition workshops report increased consumption of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as cooking more healthy meals at home. Beyond such self-reported data, Children’s Aid families who have participated in Go!Healthy programs feel a greater sense of community support. For example, caregivers who join our Farmers Market Walks at Early Childhood Centers have the opportunity to meet and learn from other families, and those connections continue long after our sessions. Even when their children move on to a different school, the family’s connection to the farmers market as a local resource will live on.

Children’s Aid is also very focused on program integration. At Go!Healthy, this means that we focus on supporting the whole family by offering healthy, nutritious meals and snacks at our sites, and complementing those with the Food Box and nutrition/cooking education so that families can take their healthy-behavior work home. This is why the citywide work being done to support local food systems from the ground up is so critical to ensuring that New Yorkers have the resources to support their well-being.

FPC: Are there any partnerships or collaborations that play a role in the success of the Go!Healthy programs?

CA: Go!Healthy programs would not be possible without the deep collaboration and support of our partners at Children’s Aid. We are fortunate to work in an organization where building partnerships is at the forefront of our work. Our colleagues in early childhood and youth services and child welfare make our work possible by bringing families together and building enthusiasm for participating in our programs. Special examples that come to mind are Ana and Estella, staff members at the Mirabal Sisters Campus in Washington Heights, who help pack Food Boxes and know the community intimately. They are continuously promoting the program and literally flagging down passersby to share information. There’s also Ilene at the Goodhue Center on Staten Island who lives nearby and will ensure that GrowNYC can deliver our produce on holidays and snow days. These are small acts, but they make the Food Box program run smoothly and successfully for our participants.

FPC: Any final thoughts?

Please join us at Food Box! Everyone is welcome to sign up for a weekly bag, browse our farmstands, and attend our nutrition workshops. Here’s where you can find us:

Harlem – Milbank Center:
23 West 117th Street
Wednesdays: 2-4:30 p.m. through 11/15

Washington Heights – Mirabal Sisters Campus:
21 Jumel Place
Tuesdays: 2-4:30 p.m. through 11/14

South Bronx – Whitney Young Jr. Campus:
1919 Prospect Ave
Thursdays: 2-4:30 p.m. through 11/16

Staten Island – Goodhue Center:
304 Prospect Ave
Tuesdays: 1-3:30 p.m. through 11/14

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