Melissa Fuster talks with Oscar Leon Bernal, one of the owners of La Loncheria in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photo by Craig Stokle
It always came back to food for Melissa Fuster.
The assistant professor of health and nutrition sciences, and food policy and public health nutrition scholar, came to the United States mainland 20 years ago from her birthplace of Puerto Rico to further her education. The move resulted in a Ph.D. from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University, and work as a faculty fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
“I was always interested in food,” Fuster says. “I was fascinated by the fact that what we eat becomes an intrinsic part of who we are.”
Fuster brought her passion and expertise in the power of food to Brooklyn College, where she is working on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant-funded project aimed at engaging restaurants in strategies to improve community health and boost revenue and visibility, particularly in Latin Caribbean communities. The research-based initiative, the Latin American Restaurants in Action (LARiA) Project, is focusing on restaurants because they are vital engines in helping to improve overall health throughout New York City—perhaps the largest hub for the industry in the world. The NIH grant is for $800,000 over five years.
Fuster, who teaches community nutrition and food culture courses at the college, says the overall goal is to promote nutrition and cardiovascular health in Hispanic communities through innovative, evidence-based environmental interventions and policies, including healthy eating choices. She sees these efforts as beneficial for the restaurants, as a way to innovate and meet the rising demand for more nutritious, fresher foods while boosting revenue and visibility.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency of the project, as healthy habits have taken on greater importance. The work now includes all Latino restaurants in the United States, including Puerto Rico, as the project looks to help more restaurants rebuild.
“LARiA is really the result of my multidisciplinary upbringing,” Fuster says. “It brings pieces of my different interests together while we work to solve a very complicated problem.”
Before COVID-19 stalled the booming restaurant industry in the region, it is estimated that one-third to one-half of the food New Yorkers consumed came from outside the home, mainly through restaurants. Helping restaurateurs rethink how they can make their food more nutritious can aid overall community health post–COVID-19 and in the future.
A National Restaurants Association “State of the Industry” report reveals that “the hottest food offerings in 2020 include plant-based proteins, healthy bowls, and global cuisines, and consumers have more food choices than ever. What makes a difference? Healthful options, food source-transparency, and a commitment to sustainability.”
LARiA started one year ago and builds on Fuster’s previous ethnographic and archival research and her work in food security and food policy implementation. Her first book, Caribeños at the Table: How Migration, Health, and Race Intersect in New York City (University of North Carolina Press, expected fall 2021), examines eating practices and health outcomes in New York City’s Latin Caribbean communities. Fuster is also active with a blog that chronicles LARiA and her research interests.
Her research team includes three Brooklyn College graduate students studying health and nutrition—Tamara Alam, Tara Frank, and Elise Harrison—who are also doing their master’s theses under Fuster’s guidance. Frank and Harrison are also registered dietitians.
Frank’s thesis question is right in line with Fuster’s project, and she is excited to be a part of it.
“We are in the fact-finding and data collection phase right now, trying to find a baseline of what a healthy restaurant environment can look like so we can develop interventions within these communities,” Frank says, adding there is also an undergraduate team of students helping with recruitment, including social media outreach.
Harrison, who earned her bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Brooklyn College in 2018, is working as a dietician at a private practice. Her interest in food began at an early age, when she worked in her family’s backyard garden.
“I had a garden all my life,” Harrison says. “When my grandmother passed away, I took it over. Now, I see the benefits of healthy foods and the power of restaurants to really drive substantial change.”
In addition to the Latin and Hispanic communities that are a large part of the study, Harrison is looking at African and Caribbean communities, particularly the number of people afflicted with diabetes and hypertension.
Fuster is currently leading listening sessions with several restaurants. The ultimate goal is to have a few signed on by next summer so that she can engage with staffs—from owners, to cooks, to servers—to identify and solve barriers preventing healthier eating behaviors.
For Harrison, the work is the perfect mix of food, science, and public service.
“I worked in the chemistry department in high school and hated being in the lab all of the time and not interacting with people,” Harrison says. “Being a dietician and working with this research group allows me to pursue many of my interests while helping the community.”