By JULIE MINDA
Students in the Bergen County, N.J., Academies' SkillsUSA club prepare Healing Meals for children receiving treatment in the hematology/oncology program at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.
To help ensure that sick children and their families eat nutritious meals — despite the long hours they spend at the hospital — St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Paterson, N.J., and a group of community partners is offering free, ready-to-heat meals.
Through the Healing Meals food gifting program, the family of any child undergoing treatment at the hospital's Valerie Fund Children's Center for Pediatric Cancers and Blood Disorders can request free frozen meals. Many take them home as they leave the hospital after a treatment. The food is stored in a freezer at the pediatric hematology/oncology program unit.
A community volunteer prepares a chicken fajita recipe from the Appetite for Life cookbook. She is at the No Fuss Lunch commercial kitchen in Hawthorne, N.J.
The Healing Meals food gifting program is the brainchild of Stacey Antine, a registered dietitian nutritionist who in 2005 founded the HealthBarn USA program to combat obesity and related diseases in children. The Ridgewood, N.J.-based HealthBarn provides healthy lifestyle education and healthy foods to children. Antine, who also wrote a cookbook called Appetite for Life, created Healing Meals in 2014 for sick children being treated at Hackensack University Medical Center. She expanded the program to St. Joseph's Children's in fall 2015. Provided through HealthBarn's foundation, Healing Meals has distributed more than 6,000 meals to families of pediatric patients since the program's inception.
St. Joseph's Children's staff decided which kid-tested, family-friendly meals would be offered in the unit. All of the Healing Meals are made from recipes from Appetite for Life. Those recipes are nutritionally sound and "child-friendly," according to information from St. Joseph's Children's. Veggie lasagna and chicken fajitas are among the favorites of patients and families. Soups, snacks and desserts are available to take home as well.
Elementary schoolchildren are among those who volunteer for the Healing Meals program.
Dr. Jill Menell, chief of the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Program at St. Joseph's Children's, says Healing Meals fills a therapeutic need because although proper nutrition is important for the health of patients and their families numerous constraints can make it difficult for families to eat healthfully while their child is sick.
"With any health issue, obviously, well-balanced meals with healthy ingredients is common sense, but many of our families were never taught good nutrition," Menell says. Also, she says, "access to a sound meal for patients at our center is (difficult) due in part to time. Families can spend long hours in the clinic, and it makes it challenging to come home and prepare a meal at the end of a long day. It is certainly easier to grab fast food in situations like these than preparing a well-balanced meal."
Families whose children are being treated in St. Joseph's Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Program can select homemade frozen meals to take home with them after their child's treatments.
She says, "An underlying issue that affects not only our patients but the larger community that St. Joseph's serves is access to, and affordability, of nutritious food. In some areas of the community, there is a dearth of supermarkets, and families can access only what is sold in their local bodega or convenience store."
Although it is common for St. Joseph's Children's clinicians to encourage patients to eat high-protein foods, when appropriate, and lots of fruits and vegetables, Menell says, "fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive and do not always fit into the family's budget."
Culinary student volunteers from the Bergen County, N.J., Academies' SkillsUSA club in Hackensack, N.J., prepare the recipes for the Healing Meals at a commercial kitchen in Hawthorne, N.J., called No Fuss Lunch. The volunteer cooks use fresh, natural, organic ingredients donated by three local Whole Foods Market stores. HealthBarn's foundation oversees the operation and provides additional ingredients and packaging. The freezer where the meals are stored was donated by a Paterson, N.J., store, Reno's Appliance.
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