Joining in the movement to improve health in Upper Manhattan, the Fortune Society recently held an event showing community residents how to choose and cook healthier food options. The cooking demonstration, which was held at the Fortune Society’s LEED-certified affordable housing facility known as Castle Gardens, highlighted the success of the food and nutrition program.

Approximately 800 Fortune families and children, which include formerly incarcerated adults and residents of Fortune’s housing facilities in Harlem, have attended a series of nutrition education workshops, including “Taste and Texture” and “Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables.”

Last December, a $25,000 grant from the Aetna Foundation and a supplemental grant from the New York State Department of Health’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP) allowed the Fortune Society to launch the “Food & Nutrition Program for Families & Children.”

Families have participated in 35 cooking demonstrations, taking home bags of fresh produce after each one. Produce is provided by local suppliers Corbin Hill Road Farm and Brooklyn Grange Farm, which operate urban rooftop farms in Brooklyn and Queens. The two suppliers have distributed more than 4,500 pounds of fresh produce to Fortune clients and community members.

“The same communities impacted by the criminal justice system are the same ones that are in food deserts,” said Fortune Society Vice President of Development and Public Affairs Glen Martin. “We just built a green building teaching clients how to live healthy, and we thought that this would be complementary.”

Martin added that the program is also helping clients who were formerly incarcerated gain skills that could land them a job in the culinary field. The skills learned during cooking demonstrations make clients perfect candidates to work in restaurants.

Since being a part of the program, Harlem resident Barbara Biscaino said that she and her daughter have been able to learn about cooking more healthfully and getting access to fresh produce. Biscaino said her health has improved as well, so much so that she’s reduced her dosage of blood pressure medication.

“It’s a very good program,” she said. “I enjoyed it because it was hands-on. I haven’t always been a healthy eater, and I’ve had a lot of health issues with my blood pressure. Before the sessions, I thought I was doing OK by eating vegetables out of the can, but I learned fresh is the best way to go.”

Next year, the class curriculum will have a greater focus on the participants’ needs, such as child and family nutrition, heart-healthy eating and diabetes education. The program will also include recipe selection workshops, nutrition-related activities and a field trip to one of the supplier farms.