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Food as Medicine at The Lower Eastside Girls Club
"Girls Club has been, and continues to be, my journey to health and wellbeing."
By Valerie Galindo
I was born and raised in the Lower East Side along Ave D. My mom was a single mom with four girls to raise at a time when there were few resources in this community. I remember there were several Boy’s Clubs in the LES at the time where girls were not allowed, including BBR (now BGR) across the street from my apartment. My aunt Nancy Vega, one of the founders of the Girls Club introduced my mom to the Girls Club right when it was getting started and holding classes at various locations around the community. I remember the basement space on 4th and D that always flooded, but that didn’t stop us. Eventually, the Girls Club started operating out of a Catholic school space on 4th St. between Ave A and B where there was a kitchen and a new program called Sweet Things run by Miladys Ramirez. We would bake cookies and sell them around the community to help raise funds for the club. It was at this time I realized my passion for baking. Girls Club supported me in my pursuit of a certification program from the Culinary Institute of Education on 23rd Street. I did a work study program, going to school in the morning and working in the Girls Club’s kitchen in the afternoon. The Girls club location and The Sweet Things Bake Shop moved to Ave C and we also started a shop, La Tiendita, at Essex Market. I worked at both locations, and it was during this time that I had my son and dealt with a serious bout of postpartum depression and weight gain. I didn’t like myself and eventually the doctor told me I was unhealthy. So I made a change. I started to eat better and move more.
One day I was over at the track on the East River, and I started to run. I ran one mile and I kept going. I was shocked that I had it in me. And that was it. When I came back to work the next day, I told Lyn, our Executive Director at the time, I was going to run the half-marathon for the Girls Club, and I did it! I ran the half-marathon in March of that year and went on to run a full marathon. It was so hard but it felt good. I started a Run Club at the Girls Club to get the girls moving and I love sharing this practice with them.
In 2013 the Girls Club moved into its current location on Avenue D between 7th and 8th Streets. Here we had a full commercial kitchen to train the girls. I was being introduced to healthy food alternatives as we were preparing more and more meals and doing a smoothie bar for the girls after school. Now I was becoming an educator and instructor in the kitchen. I was helping girls get their food handler’s license and introducing them to healthy, plant based foods. Sharing with them how food is medicine. You know there is nothing really healthy around here on Avenue D, our families don’t have options. Because I come from here, this is my chance to step up and give back to my community. I continue to grow and learn here everyday. And to think I have had the honor of preparing and sharing a meal with Michelle Obama here at the Girls Club.
When Covid hit in March, I knew this community would be hit hard and I had to do something. I came into the Girls Club everyday to prepare meals to distribute. We did weekly wellness kits and started providing daily brown bag lunches to kids doing remote learning. We’re providing healthy, wholesome food packages. And this effort has only grown over the year. I know the families are so appreciative. I know they need it. They thank me all the time; I have built a bond with these parents. I am a single mom myself so I understand the challenges. If I could feed the whole community I would. I am so grateful for the opportunity to give back. It motivates me every day. In seeing the girls, I see myself. This job is my life. To be here, I am blessed.
Girls Club has been and continues to be, my journey to health and wellbeing. When I was a kid, it was my safe haven and, as an adult, the Girls Club is now my home and my family. It is my mission to give back to my community, to share wellness practices with the next generation. The Center for Wellbeing and Happiness initiative of the Girls Club will bring so much light to this community. It will help address the enormous mental health challenges facing our community today with classes, workshops, counseling, yoga, dance, and healthy food options. It gives me hope. It's what we need to heal. I can’t wait to be a part of it.
Valerie Galindo is the Head of the Culinary Department at the Lower Eastside Girls Club, where she empowers young women from her community to create nutritional meals and assists them in their professional development. She was born and raised on the Lower East Side and continues to live in the neighborhood and serve her community.