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Cooking up healthy habits for a lifetime

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Independent Health Foundation Healthy Options at Home

Colleen and her 5-year-old son are among the 440 families throughout Buffalo and Niagara Falls that have received free meal kits through Healthy Options at Home, a more recent offering from the Independent Health Foundation. 

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Packing a truck with food every day can become old hat, says Alex Wright, president and founder of African Heritage Food Co-op. But that feeling flips when he physically delivers it to communities in need throughout Niagara Falls and Buffalo. 

“When you get there and hand folks their meal kits, there’s a lot of excitement,” Wright says. “The appreciation isn’t only from who we’re giving the bags to, but the neighbors all ask how they can be a part of Healthy Options at Home as well.” 

Healthy Options at Home is a more recent offering from the Independent Health Foundation, which was founded 30 years ago to enhance the health and wellness of Western New Yorkers. It’s one of several initiatives that support everything from free wellness screenings to youth fitness. 

Healthy Options at Home is an outgrowth of Healthy Options, a program that dates back to 2004. It was founded to help the community make informed decisions about what to eat while addressing the high rates of stroke and heart disease. While the program continues to work with local restaurants to designate heart-healthy menu options, home delivery of the meal kits became increasingly more important during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“We saw a need to provide a valuable engagement piece with families all at home,” says Brianna Wallenhorst, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Independent Health Foundation. “We saw amazing outcomes and happy families, so we decided to make it our continued focus and expand the program.” 

Participants like Colleen, an East Buffalo resident, have been the beneficiaries of this growing partnership between the Independent Health Foundation and Wright’s co-op. 

The four-week program is designed to teach healthy cooking skills and create positive long-term habits. Delivered weekly are kits that include all ingredients for a healthy recipe, plus a video demonstration. Families also receive a kitchen kit with essential cooking tools like a cutting board, paring knife, measuring utensils, oven mitt and more. Recipes are all budget-friendly (less than $15), require about 10 ingredients and take minimal time to prepare. 

Colleen’s mother taught her how to cook as a young girl, and now she’s sharing that same experience with her 5-year-old son making meals such as Jamaican jerk chicken, sweet potato tacos and turkey burger sliders. 

“We like to cook together, so it’s nice to have this time to bond,” says Colleen, who also cooks for elderly neighbors in her apartment complex. “I eat a pretty healthy diet already, so the joy factor is a big component in this. It can really be a rewarding experience.” 

Colleen may already be focused on nutritional meals, but Wright said he has learned so many people don’t know how to eat healthy. Providing that knowledge helps the 440 families who were part of the program this year. The goal is to increase the number of families served to help combat food insecurities, rising food prices and transportation obstacles. 

“We don’t do it often enough to say it’s tackling large scale food insecurity, but on a smaller scale it does,” Wright says. “You’re not going to tell me we can put someone on the moon but we can’t make healthy food taste good. There are great recipes here involving stuff they can get readily other places.” 

Providing recipes that can become a part of a household’s core meals is another goal of the Healthy Options program. According to a recent survey, 90% of participants say they’ve remade the healthy recipes on their own. 

“I think that’s the purpose, that’s why we do this,” Wright says. “I think that means the program’s working because the plan isn’t to always provide free stuff. The plan is to put people in a position where they’ll use their dollars and make those healthier choices. That’s what the community needs.”

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