This Organization Has Been Improving Healthy Habits in Harlem for 48 Years

by Gabrielle Khalife
Part of the Food Policy Community Spotlight Series

Name: Harlem Children’s Zone

What they do: Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is a community organization that provides a comprehensive network of education, social-services and community-building programs to more than 24,000 children and adults in Central Harlem. Aimed at providing critical support to children and families, and reweaving the very fabric of community life, the HCZ Project began as a one-block pilot in the 1990s. With bold ambition, careful planning, and a strong infrastructure, they set out to address not just some but all of the issues children and families were facing within a finite geographic area, including crumbling apartments, rampant drug use, failing schools, violent crime and chronic health problems. Building on the success of this early initiative, HCZ launched a 10-year strategic plan in 2000, steadily and systematically expanding the depth and breadth of their programming to encompass 24 blocks, then 60 blocks, and ultimately 97 blocks of Central Harlem. 

How they do it: HCZ believes that in order to achieve long-term success, children need consistent, comprehensive support. Their logistical “pipeline” begins at birth and helps kids all the way through college graduation, providing exceptional education, social services, family support, health services, and community-building programs. Since its inception the organization has developed a series of groundbreaking programs designed to address children and community needs. In 2000 they began offering The Baby College parenting workshops. In 2001 they introduced the Harlem Gems preschool program and in 2004, they opened their first Promise Academy Charter School. Most recently, in 2012 they began implementing Healthy Harlem, a cross-site initiative to combat obesity and foster healthy habits throughout the Zone.

The Baby College: The Baby College program works to ensure that, from the time a child is born, he or she is immersed in healthy, supportive environments that will enable him or her to thrive and be set on the path to school- and college-readiness. The critical first step in HCZ’s cradle-through-college pipeline of best-practice programs, the Baby College, gives expectant parents and parents of children ages 0-3 a strong understanding of child development and the skills to raise happy, healthy babies. Through workshops and home visits over the course of a 9-week term, parents gain expertise in a number of areas, including child behavior and safety; communication and intellectual stimulation; linguistic and brain development; and health and nutrition. Learn more.

Harlem Gems: Harlem Gems is the final step in HCZ’s early childhood pipeline. The program works with 240 children across four preschool sites to ensure that each and every one enters kindergarten school-ready. With a staff of five in each classroom, classes have a 4:1 child-to-adult ratio, allowing for more one-on-one work and ensuring that students receive the individualized attention they need. The Harlem Gems staff also encourage strong family involvement, engaging parents and caregivers in classroom activities and creating consistency between home and school. Early literacy skills are a primary focus of the Gems curriculum. Learn more.

Promise Academy K-12 Charter Schools: The HCZ Promise Academy Charter Schools offer students an array of services to guarantee that they are equipped to graduate from college. The Promise Academy schools are tuition free and have approximately 2,000 children enrolled. Students get a freshly made healthy breakfast and lunch every day, as well as daily exercise and weekly nutrition education classes so they can develop lifelong healthy habits. Students have access to medical and dental services. There is also a wide-ranging afterschool program that offers tutoring and homework help, as well as exposure to enriching activities including photography, chess, robotics and music. In addition, there are “after after-school” activities that include team sports. Learn more.

Healthy Harlem:  Healthy Harlem was created to combat the perilous rise in obesity in the community and ensure that kids grow up to be happy, self-sustaining adults. An innovative healthy living initiative, the program is designed to serve the community. Through nutrition education, fun fitness activities, and parent engagement, Healthy Harlem is helping thousands of children and families learn how to better take care of themselves, make thoughtful choices, and establish lifelong healthy habits. More than 40 percent of HCZ students are overweight or obese, putting their health and their futures at risk. Now in its second year, Healthy Harlem is working with over 4,000 youth across 20 HCZ sites, making sure they get an hour a day of rigorous physical activity and 45 minutes a week of nutrition education. Learn more.

Mission: To disrupt the cycle of generational poverty by providing individualized support to get children through college and help them become productive, self-sustaining adults

Latest project/campaign: Healthy Harlem – an organization-wide effort to improve the health and fitness of children and adults through nutrition education and regular exercise.

Major Funding: Government Grants, Private Support

Profit/nonprofit: Nonprofit

Annual Budget: $126 million

Interesting fact about how it is working to positively affect the food system: In 2017, HCZ served 27,573 kids, families, and community members across their pipeline. Through their Healthy Harlem initiative, 14,754 children and adults participated in regular sports activities and nutrition education to keep fit and energized while working toward ambitious goals. Further, HCZ’s high school seniors were awarded a total of $15,876,524 in grants and scholarships and 97 percent of their graduating high school class gained admissions to at least one college. Read HCZ’s FY17 report.


Harlem Children’s Zone
35 East 125th St.
New York, NY 10035

Core Programs:

EDUCATION (Early childhood through college): academic support, Charter Schools

COMMUNITY: Community Centers, Housing Development Community Centers, family preventive programs to avoid foster-care placement.

HEALTH: Healthy Harlem (nutrition education and fitness activities), Harlem Armory (facility that provides a wide-range of activities and fitness and nutrition classes) and HCZ Food Services (provides breakfast and lunch each school day to over 2,000 HCZ students). Learn more about the many programs HCZ offers.

Number of staff: 2,000

Areas served: Manhattan

Year Started: 1970

President: Geoffrey Canada

Contact Information: Contact Form

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