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Teranga: West African Tradition Meets Fast-Casual Dining

The bustling crowds and cramped store fronts that are commonplace within New York’s eight boroughs offer pedestrians and foodies an opportunity to embrace cultural diversity unlike any other American city. Still, New Yorkers continue to learn more about new cuisines and restaurants opening up in their small neighborhoods everyday. In the borough of Queens alone, there over 6,000 restaurants represented by 120 nationalities.  

Harlem, a neighborhood of Manhattan that has long been a historic center for African American culture, is another dynamic food hub often overlooked by tourists and restaurant critics alike. One of Harlem’s staples is Soul Food–– fried chicken, mac n’ cheese, and shrimp and grits. But what many do not know about Harlem is that there is a cluster of blocks in the neighborhood that are filled with businesses run by West African immigrants, such as “Le Petit Senegal,” or Little Senegal. 

Though it is a 15 minute walk from Le Petit Senegal, Teranga is a cafe located right across from Central Park in the Africa Center, serving food that accentuates the traditional ingredients of West Africa.

Co-founder and executive chef Pierre Thiam started Teranga  in February 2019 and the philosophy that his team brings to their work is simple and holistic: serve food that is “rooted in traditional African home cooking” while welcoming customers with “good hospitality .” They serve coffee in addition to food and offer an open space to sit down and hang out. The furniture and interior decorations have colorful African-inspired patterns inviting the most unfamiliar of guests inside. Unfortunately however, the current COVID 19 set-up is only for take-out and  consists of a table near the front of the restaurant where customers pay and pick up their orders.

Photo courtesy of ny.eater.com

I had first learned about Teranga a few months back in an Eater New York article highlighting an evolving counter-service food scene in the city–– specifically one that serves Pan-African cuisine not found anywhere else around Manhattan. 

Teranga’s menu includes a choice of protein ––free ranged grilled chicken, roasted salmon with Morroccan spices, or sweet potato–– over any of their bases of jollof rice, fermented cassava couscous, or liberian red rice, and a choice of various salads, legumes, and roasted vegetables. 

On my first visit a few weeks ago, I sat on a bench in the park where I enjoyed the well-seasoned and succulent chicken breast with hearty red rice, a bright kale salad with locust beans, and mushy, sweet plantains. Then I added the mafe, a warm peanut sauce, as well as a hot sauce made of scotch bonnet peppers. The peanut sauce added nuttiness while the hot sauce gave the food an incredible burn with a hint of bitterness. 

A spontaneous snapshot of my Teranga Chicken Bowl

After eating the meal, I began to think that any combination of food available on the menu could offer textural and flavor varieties that topped most restaurants in resembling delicious home cooking. For $14, it may have been the most eccentric and comprehensive meal I had eaten in a while. 

Teranga also works to raise awareness of African culture within the eclectic New York community. It is an integral part of The Africa Center of New York, which hosts readings, music performances, talks, and film screenings by representatives from all over the continent. 

The team conveys that hospitality transcends food as they have hosted music and art events, sponsored a community run and protests for racial equality, and donated over 900 meals to healthcare workers just  in the past 6 months. All of its events and initiatives are posted through a sleek Instagram account that continues to grow in engagement.

Post from Teranga’s Instagram page @itsteranga_

Many restaurants strive to become ingrained in their local communities, but Teranga is one that practices what it preaches. It represents a model for more immigrant restaurateurs to use their platform to creatively share the nuances of their home country’s cuisines and expand the types of foods that Americans eat.  Ultimately, they can serve delicious and wholesome meals while helping to transform the neighboring community and beyond. 

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“Whole” Foods: America’s Obesity Epidemic

As if America were not already struggling enough, over forty percent of American adults were obese as of late 2019, reports the NCHS, and by 2030, almost half of all Americans could suffer from obesity. Though the COVID-19 pandemic currently overshadows the obesity epidemic, the link between the two has become increasingly important.

Recent studies with COVID-19 patients in New York found that those suffering from obesity were twice as likely to be hospitalized. Despite this strong link, the obesity epidemic may still seem abstract within the confines of a college campus. The active lives of many students, abundant resources for recreation, and exposure to diverse food options create a bubble in which many of us live. The high obesity rates mentioned above disproportionately affect Americans with middle to lower incomes, people of color, and many who have no college education. 

The convergence of these two severe health crises sheds light on an uncertain future for health and food norms in America, as extended quarantine and work-from-home have shifted several of them.

One of the most significant shifts has been more reliance on home cooking. In fact, 45% of Americans have been cooking more in the past three months than before. Earlier in the year, Americans ate a third of their meals outside of their homes–– whether it be consuming fast food, dining at restaurants with enormous portion sizes, or relying on food delivery at the touch of a button. This new trend has the potential to create better eating habits, says esteemed Dietician Cara Rosenbloom. Her clients have reported greater intake of fruits and vegetables, fewer fad diets, and overall improvements in their mood when cooking more.

Photo courtesy of Vox

Another shift, says Hajra Jaffer, my mother and a health and well-being coach at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is towards eating habits that incorporate “whole” foods. These are plant-based, unprocessed foods, like colorful vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats. They contain nutrients that are essential to adopting sustainable eating habits, she adds. 

My mother’s insight on sustainable eating has not only been relevant to her clients over the past few months but also to a few members of my household. My sister, a 24-year-old professional, chose to dedicate a month to eating only whole foods as a part of the Whole30 Program. She cut out carbs, added sugars, dairy, legumes, and alcohol during this time. One of her main takeaways from this challenging commitment was her “awareness of how much food in America contains additives.” When substituting fresh fruit for a scoop of ice cream, she began to realize how her “mind and body reacted positively to the healthy substitute.”

My father also modified his diet a few months after recovering from COVID-19. He began experiencing allergic reactions to eating certain foods and, after consulting health professionals who had no concrete answers, he decided to follow a diet of whole foods and fewer fatty proteins, desserts, and processed snacks and drinks. He is now feeling better than ever with the various light chicken dishes, roasted vegetables, and salads that my mother prepares everyday.

Photo courtesy of Harvard.edu

My family is just one example among many that give hope for change, not only during this unprecedented time, but in the long-term. 

While it may not directly impact many people in affluent and privileged areas, obesity prevalence is a persistent issue and a product of inadequate policy, education, and investment in countless communities around the U.S.  People experiencing food insecurity and living in food deserts have barriers to accessing whole foods that are nutritious with the primary options being “low cost, energy dense processed foods,” a recent New England Journal of Medicine article states. Some of these communities have been hit even harder by the economic impacts of COVID-19, as families have experienced higher rates of food insecurity in April than prior months. Thus, obesity disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and Native American communities that struggle with food insecurity, and COVID-19 is only making it worse.

The most vulnerable age group in these communities tends to be children, as countless studies from the NIH have also concluded that childhood obesity is a significant predictor of adult obesity and chronic disease down the line. 

Public and private entities can continue tackling the obesity epidemic by improving the current food programs already in place and emphasizing the power of whole foods in these communities. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a leading health-focused philanthropic organization, suggests that policymakers continue to increase funding and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides a stimulus for lower-income families to purchase healthy foods. SNAP compliments the meal programs that American public schools must continue to provide to children for lunch during the school year. Additionally,  governments could incentivize companies to partner with community dining entities and offer meal kits with whole foods to eligible employees.

The above data is courtesy of the U.S. Bureau: Current Population Survey, 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

It is important to also recognize that exercise and physical activity go hand in hand with eating whole foods as factors that influence the prevalence of obesity in various communities. Communities with more public transportation, parks, bike lanes, and recreation spaces have weaker ties with obesity prevalence, according to Harvard Public Health. People today spend more time in their homes due to COVID-19, often unable to go outside or to the gym to exercise. Eating habits may take time to change, but if a greater number of Americans are physically active during the summer months, such behaviors could have a positive influence on other efforts to prevent further increases in obesity. 

There is a long way to go, but progress is only possible if those with the knowledge and resources can get the attention of leaders with adequate influence. There may be no better time than now for our society to treat this issue with more urgency.