Entrepreneur and author Stacey Antine, founder and CEO of HealthBarn USA, talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her passion to educate people on healthy eating, her foundation’s Healing Meals program and her book, Appetite for Life.
Stacey Antine left a successful public relations career (after 16 years in the business)—during which she created educational campaigns targeted to both adults and children for clients such as the Dannon Co., the Kellogg Co., Minute Maid, Unilever, Hoffmann-La Roche and Pfizer—to work as a registered dietician. Her passion for educating people on healthy eating and was ignited in graduate school. As part of her master’s degree requirements at New York University, where she studied food, nutrition and dietetics at night while still working full-time days in PR, Antine interned at New York City’s Beth Israel Medical Center. While on a pediatric rotation at the hospital, she discovered that families were basically uneducated about nutrition. “I began to see what was really happening with children and nutrition,” Antine says. “They were drinking large Cokes while sitting in front of food models and I remember thinking there’s got to be a better way to do this. When I spoke with the dieticians about it, they said ‘this is the protocol,’ but I believed it was a matter of education and so I began exploring opportunities to educate people from a prevention standpoint. It wasn’t just about kids with weight problems. Kids come in all shapes and sizes; they may be thin but they aren’t necessarily getting the nutrition they need for their health and performance in school.”
In 2005, Antine founded HealthBarn USA in the suburbs of New York City to teach children about nutrition and healthy eating by letting them grow their own fruits and vegetables. HealthBarn offers 10- to 12-week programs after school and during summers for kids from age 3 to 15. They learn how to grow their own fruits and vegetables, cook with farm-fresh foods and go grocery shopping with educators who teach them the importance of using fresh ingredients and making healthy food choices. “I came up with the idea of teaching kids how to grow their own organic vegetables long before gardens were popular with Michelle Obama,” she says. “I passed the idea by my nephews and they liked it, so I gave it a shot at a family farm in New Jersey.” By engaging children at the source of healthy foods—the garden and kitchen—Antine has successfully helped more than 30,000 children and their families to raise their nutritional literacy over the last decade.
Antine and HealthBarn USA have been featured on FOX, CNN “American Morning,” “The Rachael Ray Show,” PBS, “House Call” with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CBS-TV, New York, among others. She was named a “woman entrepreneur to watch” by Businessweek and featured as “Our Hero” by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for her dedication to children’s health. Her book, Appetite for Life, published by HarperOne (Harper Collins Publishers) offers advice on raising healthy eaters.
The HealthBarn Foundation currently operates three initiatives: Garden-to-Table Scholarships, School Nutrition and Healing Meals, a first-of-its-kind food gifting program that provides nutritious meals for families with children undergoing treatment for cancer, serious blood disorders and sickle cell anemia distributed through Tomorrows Children’s Fund (TCF) at Hackensack University Medical Center and through Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Program at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Paterson, N.J. To date, the program has gifted over 6,000 nutritious meals.
Opportunist: What is the overall mission of HealthBarn?
Stacey Antine: It’s all about a healthy lifestyle. Healthy eating is just one component. The real core is that children grow and harvest their own fruits and vegetables in an organic garden. I had one mom tell me she went down to the garden with her son and couldn’t believe he was eating freshly picked spinach. [Laughs] It causes a real shift with kids about where food comes from and why it’s good for them. We have activities that reinforce the messaging. They can cook with recipes in my book Appetite for Life, which are family friendly and kid-tested and nutritionally analyzed in terms of healthy proteins and whole grains. It takes the guesswork out of it. They have positive peer pressure and are encouraged to make the recipes at home with their parents. The kids are having a great time. They are excited to come back year after year. Nobody is giving me a thumbs down because they don’t like the food.
Opportunist: Is it ever a challenge for you to compete with all the fast food advertising?
Stacey Antine: It’s really a battle. As the health message is getting louder, so is the other side with the junk foods. The food environment isn’t easy. The beauty of HealthBarn is that it takes responsibility for healthy eating. It doesn’t have to be the person pushing it on the child. We empower kids to become that expert or chef at home. They understand the difference between healthy and artificial and they are making better choices. Parents just need to make sure the food is in the kitchen.
Stacey Antine: It’s a complete guide to a healthy lifestyle. We aren’t cooking like Julia Child, but I try to make it fun with simple ingredients that are easy to find. It’s about engaging the child and looking at every recipe as an activity. I address a lot of things. For example, some children live in a carnivore household and want to be vegetarian. I talk about how to facilitate that and make the child feel comfortable and honor the child’s wishes.
HealthBarn is located on a family farm and children come into the barn. For those who don’t live in New Jersey or New York, the idea was to make sure that if you live in California or Illinois or Florida you can still have a HealthBarn experience at home. I wrote it for parents to facilitate the process. The way the book is organized is just like a family’s typical day—from breakfast to bedtime. I talk about why breakfast is important and cover different topics such as packing a healthy school lunch and snacks, dinner and the bedtime.
Opportunist: What was your inspiration for the Healing Meals program?
Stacey Antine: I started HealthBarn and had to put it on hold because my dad was diagnosed with cancer. As a registered dietician I work with patients in hospitals and clinics, but when I had that personal experience with my dad 24/7 in the hospital and trying to manage his side-effects with chemo I realized that, although my mom is a good cook and we had access to really good food, we were still struggling to get the food on the table in a way that he could eat it. My dad is in really good shape now, but a light bulb went off in my head after that experience. I also did some work with Tomorrows Children’s Fund and I saw people going through the same thing with their children. Access to healthy, organic and natural foods is extremely important when nutritional needs are heightened, but most families are just too overwhelmed to think about it during those stressful times. I thought wouldn’t it be a gift if we could give families the food and not expect them to make it at home?
I started researching how we could make that happen and I talked to different partners with culinary skills. Tomorrows Children Fund said yes, their families could use it. Three Whole Foods Market stores came on board right away to help with the food donations. We do our cooking at No Fuss Lunch’s commercial kitchen, which was already cooking natural and organic foods for kids. And we started with my recipes from Appetite for Life.
Opportunist: What are the contents of a typical Healing Meal package?
Stacey Antine: We cook fresh and then we freeze it. There are no preservatives or additives. No high sodium. Then we transport those meals to the hospitals on the patient floor for outpatients. Every child and family at treatment, regardless of income, receives a Healing Meal that day. We do breakfast, lunch, snacks, soups and desserts. We give them a refrigerator bag and ask them to return it. It’s a true gift of nutritionally based food that feeds a family of four. We find these families really appreciate it because nutrition is not what’s on their mind right then. Parents of a child who just had chemotherapy or radiation certainly don’t feel good about going through a drive-thru for a fast food meal. When they leave treatment they have the meal as opposed to having to stop for fast food or pizza. We give them nutritious foods that are for the health of the child.
Since the meals are stored on the treatment floor, parents can easily select their food as they leave the hospital after treatment. We rotate our menu seasonally. For example, our summer menu might include blueberry whole-wheat waffles. Blueberries have antioxidants. Whole wheat is fiber to alleviate constipation. Sweet potato pancakes are another popular item. Sweet potatoes are like a super food. For lunch we have a veggie stir-fry with an Asian twist or a vegetarian lasagna. Our chicken fajitas are the most popular. We also have no-bake macaroni and cheese with edamame. Desserts are fudge brownie bites made with black beans, gingersnaps and perfect pops, which are refreshing popsicles made with chocolate/tofu mix to boost protein and potassium.
Healing Meals is another example of partnership. What was so exciting and what I love about the team is we took a year to really perfect our process and to ensure we were serving great meals that the families were happy with. Culinary student volunteers from the Bergen County Academies’ SkillsUSA Club in Hackensack and community volunteers prepare the recipes at No Fuss Lunch’s commercial kitchen using fresh, natural and organic foods donated by Whole Foods locations in Edgewater, Paramus and Ridgewood. We all feel great about being able to pull those partners together to make a difference. I came up with the idea, yeah, but pulling it together execution-wise is where so many ideas often fail. We all came together for the wellbeing of families and children and look what we were able to accomplish! When I started HealthBarn 10 years ago on my own I thought I was on this island all by myself. But you don’t have to go it alone. The wonderful thing about being in this space and working with these families and in these schools is that I have developed a network and friendships that are more in line with my values, which is wonderful. I’m very lucky.
Opportunist: What do you consider the best part of this whole experience?
Stacey Antine: What’s interesting to me is the diversity of what I do. When I worked in the corporate world I would get that three-year itch and move on to my next opportunity. No one day is ever the same at HealthBarn. Three years flew by before I realized it because I was caught up in my gardening and working with the kids in the schools and in the hospitals. I have a great team and I’m always training. Everything revolves around healthy lifestyle and that makes it easier for me to live this way myself. Again, it’s my passion to feed and educate as many people as possible and see how it develops. It’s important to know that, even as do-gooders, sometimes it’s very difficult to effect change on a national basis. I’m taking my little corner of New Jersey as an example and hopefully inspiring people to do it somewhere else. Everything that we do that is positive has a domino effect. I have strong opinions about all of this. I could’ve stayed on my soapbox and just talked about it, but I am working hand-in-hand with families and in the schools and with the kids. I always wanted to give back to the community. That is my nature. I feel I’m doing my part in making it a better place for kids and I feel good about that.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Stacey Antine on Twitter: @HealthBarnUSA