Picture of a variety of fruits and vegetables

Helping Our Community – One Meal At A Time

Food banks across New York state are helping families put healthy meals on the table, obtain personal care items, baby food, diapers and household cleaning supplies, and take-home fresh items like meat, cheese, eggs and produce. Now more than ever, with school closures, job losses, and health risks, millions of people have turned to food banks for much-needed support.

A food bank is a non-profit organization that collects and distributes food to hunger-relief charities like the dozens of food pantries in our communities. Food banks act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller frontline agencies.

“Feeding people facing hunger is about more than simply providing food. It’s about providing wellness, stability, and nourishment,” said Jessica Renner, regional president of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in the Southern Tier.

Partnering for Better Health

Food insecurity is known to impact health status, including putting individuals at greater risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and kidney disease.

Furthermore, studies have shown that individuals struggling with food insecurity experience more difficulties managing their health, leading to more health complications, frequent emergency room visits, and hospital stays.

Now more than ever, food banks are helping to increase access to food and other social needs in our communities.

Rochester: Foodlink

In the Rochester region,  Foodlink serves more than 200,000 people each year across a 10-county service area. Foodlink provides services to a wide network of 190 emergency agencies (pantries, soup kitchens, shelters) and provides food resources to more than 300 area partners. These partners include community centers, clinics and affordable housing developments.

Excellus BCBS is proud to support the following services that Foodlink provides to the community:

  • A mobile food pantry truck that makes emergency food deliveries to undeserved areas in and around Monroe County.
  • Cooking Matters education program that empowers families with skills, knowledge and confidence to make health and affordable meals.
  • A curbside market truck that links low-income areas in the Rochester community with nutritious, fresh, and affordable produce.
  • The Lexington Avenue Community farm, which serves more than 60 local refugee families.
Foodbank mobile food pantry truck

Foodbank mobile food pantry truck

Volunteers are also a necessity at Foodlink. Hundreds of Rochester-based Excellus BCBS employees have consistently volunteered their efforts at the Foodlink’s food distribution center. Volunteers help by packing food products, sorting food items and distributing food to area partner agencies.

To learn more about Foodlink, visit  https://foodlinkny.org/

Southern Tier: Food Bank of the Southern Tier

In the Southern Tier region, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier is increasing access to healthy food and helping to build a strong, healthy, vibrant community. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier serves Broome, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Tompkins counties. The organization is at the forefront of community collaboration around the  social determinants of health, like  food access and transportation.

“There’s really been a movement to focus on the social determinants of health. And, access to healthy food is right there at the top of the list,” said Jessica.

Excellus BCBS is proud to support the following services that Food Bank of the Southern Tier provides to the community:

  • A mobile food truck upgrade
  • A kids’ farmers market
  • The Selfless Elf 5K, currently scheduled to be held in mid-December

In addition, Southern Tier-based Excellus BCBS employees have also helped pack boxes of food or deliver food boxes to remote areas.

To learn more about Food Bank of the Southern Tier, visit: https://www.foodbankst.org/

CNY and Utica: Food Bank of Central New York

In the Central New York region, the Food Bank of Central New York serves as the main food distribution center for the counties of Cayuga, Chenango, Cortland, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego, and St. Lawrence. The organization partners with local agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters that distribute the food to families in need.

Food Bank of Central New York’s Mobile Food Pantry

Food Bank of Central New York’s Mobile Food Pantry

Excellus BCBS is proud to support efforts to nourish the community through Food Bank of Central New York’s Mobile Food Pantry (MFP). MFP is an effort to reach communities and individuals in areas of unmet need. It is a practical distribution method to work around food access obstacles and food deserts. While the MFP program initially only operated in Oneida County, the program has recently expanded into several other areas including Onondaga and Oswego counties.

To learn more about Food Bank of Central New York, visit: https://www.foodbankcny.org/

COVID-19 Impacting Food Relief

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 37 million people in the U.S. struggled with hunger, according to Feeding America.

Now, people who have not previously relied on food relief are also struggling and in need. That has caused a strain on food supplies.

Today, some food banks are reporting that they are running low on staples. Therefore, some food banks have had to supplement or ration some of the more popular food items.

Food banks have also had to change their procedures in order to provide food in the age of social distancing. Many food banks and pantries have moved to low-contact, drive-thru food distribution. They’re also now providing food at temporary community “hub” locations, such as schools and community centers, to help reach vulnerable populations.

Food banks don’t just need donations. They also need volunteers to sort and pack food boxes or to help make phone calls for donations. Now during the pandemic, many pantries are holding mobile no-contact distribution, but they still need help setting up the food and raising awareness.

If you are looking for a way to help, check in with your local food bank:

Knocking on doors. Looking under bridges. How we find hard-to-reach members.

Dajia Richardson parked her truck outside a house in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y.

She peered at the freshly-fallen snow on the driveway. No car. No footprints. “I’m still hopeful that someone is inside,” said Richardson, as she got out of the truck.

She trudged through the snow and knocked on the front door. Unlike some of her other visits this February morning, the man she was looking for opened the door.


Knocking On Members’ Doors

Richardson is part of the Safety Net CARE team at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in upstate New York. CARE stands for Committed and Accountable to Relentless Engagement.

Richardson supervises the Community Connections team. These employees try to find hard-to-reach and medically-fragile Medicaid members and connect them back to the Health Plan.

If a care manager is unable to reach a Medicaid member, for example, the employees will look for members wherever they may be – at home, living under a bridge or at a friend’s house. The team, for example, connected almost 600 Medicaid members back to the Health Plan in the fourth quarter of 2018.

On this February morning, the member who answered the door struggled with high blood pressure. A nurse care manager kept calling him, but he wasn’t answering her calls.

That’s why he had an unannounced visit that morning from Richardson. The two talked for a few minutes. Then he invited her inside.

Another Nurse To Care About You

Richardson’s team of six employees look for Medicaid members daily. They look for Excellus BCBS members who live within eight counties of upstate New York: Broome, Erie, Livingston, Monroe, Oneida, Ontario, Otsego, and Wayne counties.

The employees have discovered that a personal visit may do more than an official letter or phone call to encourage Medicaid members to:

  • take advantage of community resources
  • talk to a care manager and enroll in a health-improvement program. Care managers help members with medical conditions, including pregnancies, diabetes and behavioral health issues.

The member with the high blood pressure, for example, told Richardson that he didn’t answer the care manager calls because he didn’t recognize the number. His girlfriend was also a nurse, he said, so he didn’t need to work with another one.

Dajia Richardson of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield

“It’s sometimes a little bit different when you have someone who works as a nurse and you know them personally, as opposed to a nurse care manager specifically for you and your care,” Richardson told the member. “When I put it to him that way, that he would have another nurse to care about him, he was definitely interested,” Richardson added.

By the time Richardson left his house, the member was on the phone talking to the nurse care manager at the Health Plan.

Looking Under Bridges

The hardest members to find are often those who are homeless. “We look for those bread crumbs that tell us where the member may be,” Richardson said.

Community Connections representatives, for example, traced one member with behavioral health issues to his parent’s house. They learned the member was living under a bridge. The parents shared details about the member. He was in his 20s, with a blonde ponytail and a scooter. After several trips to the bridge, Community Connections representatives found him and connected him to a care manager.

Click on the video below to learn about Richardson’s favorite success story – a member who needed help with her health and with other issues, including an eviction.


“We’ve Got the Goods”

Richardson and her team often go above and beyond to help members with other parts of their life.

On a day in January, for example, Richardson started her morning at the Angel Care ministry in a suburb of Rochester. The ministry helps financially-strapped moms acquire portable baby beds and other items.

“We’ve got the goods,” Richardson joked as she left the ministry with a pack n’ play and other baby items for a Medicaid member. She loaded the items in her vehicle. She then headed to the member’s home in the inner city of Rochester.

Community Connections representatives have cultivated contacts in the community – churches, government agencies, nonprofits, etc. – who can help employees secure items such as:

  • Special formula for premature babies
  • Help with an eviction
  • Government-subsidized cell phones
  • Beds for a family sleeping on wood pallets
  • Car seats for newborns

For the member receiving the pack n’ play, a care manager had learned that the new mom didn’t have a safe place for her newborn to sleep. That’s why Richardson trekked to the ministry that morning.

“A lot of moms plan to sleep with their baby in their beds, with no plans after that,” said Richardson, as she turned her car out of the ministry’s driveway.  “That’s where we can help.”

Chris Booth, CEO of Excellus BCBS, said the work of employees with Community Connections – and many others at the Health Plan – get at the heart of the company’s mission as a nonprofit health plan.

“The reason our Health Plan exists is to make sure as many people as possible have access to high quality, affordable health care,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of, given all the work we do in our communities and especially with our Medicaid members.”

From Addict To Leader: One Woman’s Path To Sobriety

Sarah Lee reflects on her sobriety whenever she walks by a corner room on the second floor of the Jennifer House in Rochester.

She took her first step toward sobriety while staying in the yellow room at the house run by Spiritus Christi Prison Outreach. The house is a short-term residence for women who are often battling addiction and re-entering society after a stint in jail.

“When I first came to the Jennifer House, I was given a choice,” she said. “I made the choice to be sober. For the first time in a while, I had made the right choice.”

Sarah kept making the “right choices.” Today, she’s still at the house, but in a completely different role. Today Sarah is the director of the Jennifer House. It’s a role that she said is both humbling and surreal given how far she’s come since her 52-day stay there in 2008.

Sarah Lee

From Addict to Leader

Sarah stayed sober, graduated from the Jennifer House and moved into supportive housing. She went back to school, earning her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

“I never envisioned that I’d be a leader,” said Sarah, who is also in the process of earning her Master of Social Work degree. “It’s a very humbling experience and an honor.”

Sarah said it helps that she can relate to what many of the residents are going through.

“When I say I understand, I understand,” she said.

Straight-A Student Turns to Drugs

For Sarah, the life of an addict started at the age of 14. That’s when the straight-A student took her first drink of alcohol.

“When I had my first drink, I loved it,” Sarah said.

Her drinking led to 11 years of drug use, including marijuana, ecstasy and crack cocaine. She committed crimes, landed in jail a few times and a drug treatment court sent her to the Jennifer House.

Sarah now urges her residents not to forget the person they were while using. Sarah, for example, said she doesn’t hate the version of herself who used to be known on the streets as “snowflake.”

“Snowflake kept me alive, despite all the drugs,” Sarah said. “She was resilient, persevered and somehow survived.”

“But I had to let that person go to become Sarah again,” she added.

You can Have Fun and Be Sober

Sarah’s understanding of how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction helps guide her programming.

The goal of the house’s wellness initiative, for example, is to show the former addicts that they can have fun and be sober.

A grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has helped Sarah fund this program, which is run by a volunteer, part-time recreation therapist. The wellness initiative includes exercise programs at local fitness centers and outings to try white water rafting, horseback riding, bowling and yoga.

Residents of the Jennifer House on a white water rafting trip.

The activities, Sarah said, help residents fight their cravings, decrease stress and increase self-discipline and confidence – all skills essential to recovery. About 80 percent of residents use what they learn from the program to develop new, healthy habits, she added.

Exercise, after all, has been hailed as one piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping people overcome addiction.

Sarah also links each outing to the residents’ own struggles to be sober.

The residents’ battles with the rapids while white water rafting, for example, is like their fight for recovery. The rapids are tough, but you still have to fight through them.

“Life feels like that when you’re in recovery, but you can get through it,” Sarah said.

Cervical Cancer survivor Christine Baze wants everyone to get this vaccination. Here’s why.

Before you decide whether or not to have your pre-teen vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus), you may want to read about Christine Baze’s battle with cervical cancer.

Don’t have kids that age? You may still want to read Christine’s story. The National Cancer Institute says HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.

While in most cases HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t result in any health problems, it can cause genital warts and cancer in women and men. The HPV vaccine provides protection against cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (throat and mouth), penile, vaginal and vulvar cancer and genital warts.

Here’s Christine’s story.

It was spring 2000 and Christine was on top of the world, having quit her job as a marriage and family therapist to devote herself full-time to a career in music. Happily married, she and her husband dreamed of starting a family someday.

She showed up for her regular gynecologist’s annual appointment in March figuring it would be the same old routine visit. After all, her Pap smears had been “normal” the last 13 times.

This time, however, her Pap smear came back “abnormal.”

Her doctor explained she had abnormal cells on her cervix, and if left untreated, they could develop into cancer. He explained the cell changes were a result of HPV that she probably had contracted years ago. Although there’s now a vaccine for HPV, the Food and Drug Administration didn’t approve it until 2006, years after Christine unknowingly had contracted the virus.

Cancer was a worst case scenario, her doctor advised her, but referred her to an oncologist specializing in gynecological cancer.

Otherwise healthy, Christine told her doctor, “There’s no way I have cancer,” but agreed to see the specialist.

On April 18, 2000, Christine’s life changed forever. The diagnosis came back cervical cancer.

Her full-time job was surviving

Just months before, Christine had put her professional life on hold to pursue her passion: singing, performing and writing music. Now, her full-time job was surviving.

On April 28, 2000. Christine underwent a radical hysterectomy that removed her uterus, cervix and connective tissue. The surgeon left the one healthy ovary intact, in case Christine and her husband wanted to try in vitro fertilization with a surrogate mother. Later, they did try, but it failed.

“No little Crissi for this Christine,” she remembers thinking.

“You really don’t know how much you want something until you can’t have it,” Christine, a native of Elmira, New York, told Syracuse University students at a sexual health awareness day on campus February 2017.

The author with Christine at her Syracuse University appearance.


Fried Inside and Out

Surgery was only the beginning. External radiation five days a week for five weeks ran concurrent with four rounds of chemotherapy, and then was followed by three rounds of internal radiation.

She felt fried inside and out, emotionally drained and spiritually wounded.

As a licensed family and marriage therapist, Christine knew what she needed to do and did it. She got her own therapist, joined a support group, tried different medications and even got a puppy.

Christine’s dog, Harold

Although Christine survived the cancer, her marriage didn’t weather the fall-out.

Harold and Maude Wake Her Up

A chance viewing of the 1971 cult flick, “Harold and Maude,” was Christine’s call to “kick cancer to the door and begin living again.”

At almost 80, Maude’s zest for life provides a stark contrast to rich, bored 20-year-old Harold’s obsession with death. Eventually, the old woman turns Harold into a believer—and Christine, too.

“No matter what Maude was up against, she prevailed,” said Christine.

“She was a survivor, and so am I.”

Even the movie’s soundtrack by Cat Stevens propelled Christine to run to the piano she hadn’t touched in months. She played the melody and belted out the lyrics to “Trouble”:

“Trouble move away, I’ve seen your face and it’s too much for me today.”

The sunny umbrella that Maude flaunted among a sea of black ones in the movie’s funeral scene led to the name of the nonprofit that Christine founded not long after seeing the movie classic.

Under the shelter of The Yellow Umbrella Organization, Christine talks and sings about something no one wants to talk about: cervical health. She calls the series of concerts The Yellow Umbrella Tour, promoting the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer prevention, and regular screenings and tests for those who may be infected and not know it.

Paint It Yellow

Christine has done 100-plus tour dates and more than 250 events with PAINT IT YELLOW to talk about HPV and cervical cancer prevention. The venues are middle and high schools, colleges, community settings, workplaces and clubs. She also appears in the highly acclaimed documentary, Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic.

“Christine has a kind of radiance about her,” said Melissa Klinko who was instrumental in bringing the Yellow Umbrella tour to Elmira under the auspices of her employer, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Back in her hometown, Christine lit up the stage where she’d once performed as a student.

“She turned a life-threatening illness and devastating situation into a positive experience that touches the hearts and minds of young, old and in between,” said Klinko. ”Who knows how many lives she’s saved because of her message?”

HPV Vaccination Rates Low

The CDC reports that nationwide six of 10 parents are choosing to get the HPV vaccine for their children.

In states where vaccination rates are lowest, cervical cancer rates are the highest, according to another national study.

But the number of cases of cervical cancer and death by cervical cancer has decreased in New York state over the last 40 years thanks in large part to regular Pap smears and HPV vaccinations.

“Many parents would tell me that they didn’t think they needed to worry about that right now with their adolescent son or daughter,” said Nicholas Massa, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

“However, adolescents should be vaccinated before they become exposed, because protection is greatest before he or she has initiated any type of sexual activity with another person. And, despite how much we try to guide our children and despite how open a relationship we may have with them, we will not likely know when that first time will be.”

Some parents may believe that if they have their children vaccinated against HPV that their kids will begin engaging in sexual activity, especially at a younger age, but studies don’t bear that out, he said, citing one published in Pediatrics.

Dr. Massa also said providers may need to become more comfortable talking about it with their patients and their parents.

For those too old for the vaccine, education and prevention are the first line of defense for women and men, Dr. Massa said, advising that women should follow the Choosing Wisely® recommendations for screenings. Even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV.

“So the risk is real for all.”

It didn’t take my voice.

Although music and The Yellow Umbrella are her passions, Christine continues to work part-time as an outpatient mental health therapist at Mass General for Children at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Massachusetts. Troubled teens are her specialty.

“Cervical cancer took lots of bits and pieces of my body,” Christine said, “but it didn’t take my voice.”

To hear Christine’s “voice” as she educates others about cervical health, watch the following video.

For more information, read 11 Facts About HPV And Cervical Cancer.

Battling Lead Poisoning in Herkimer and Oneida Counties

According to area health departments, an alarming percentage of children in Herkimer and Oneida counties are not screened for lead exposure.

Screening, however, is critical since the majority of homes in the area were built prior to 1978. That’s when lead paint was still commonly used. If children are exposed to lead, they’re at risk for major lifelong complications, including behavioral and social issues, learning disabilities and physical and psychiatric health issues.

The good news? A new initiative is providing local healthcare providers with the technology to more easily screen toddlers at ages one and two. This is when it’s most important to identify and address lead exposure. Using grant funds from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s Member and Community Health Improvement program and with support from the Lead-Free Mohawk Valley Coalition, Herkimer County HealthNet is distributing lead screening machines to area primary care offices.

Left: Tom Curnow, Executive Director of Herkimer County HealthNet, Inc.; Center: John Murphy of Magellan Diagnostics; and Right: Alison Swartz, Program Coordinator for Herkimer County HealthNet, Inc. with a Lead Care II machine.

Removing Barriers to Lead Testing

The Lead Care II machine provides an almost instant reading of blood lead levels from a finger-stick blood sample. Herkimer Family Nurse Practitioners, a primary care pediatric practice in Herkimer County, received one of the testing machines in early 2017.

“Before we got the machine, testing children at the appropriate age was a challenge,” said Michelle Gorski. Gorski, along with Charlene Macri, owns the practice.

Charlene Macri, co-owner of Herkimer Family Nurse Practitioners, PLLC., demonstrates how the Lead Care II machine is used on a young patient.

Previously, screening rates for their patients were between 70 and 80 percent. This range is not uncommon among practices without on-site testing capabilities.

Transportation issues and work schedules sometimes prevent parents from having their children tested at the lab. In some cases, parents lose their lab slips, or simply forget to get the test done. Now, with the ability to test for lead at a child’s routine checkup, the practice is on track to screen 100% of their patients at ages one and two.

Making Lead Testing Less Scary

Some parents are understandably hesitant to bring their infants to the lab to have their blood drawn at all.

In a lab, a technician usually tries to obtain a blood sample from a tiny vein in the child’s arm. That can be scary and uncomfortable, even for an adult. As a result, Gorski and Macri estimate that more than 25 percent of the children they refer to labs leave without a successful blood draw.

Alternatively, a finger stick in the familiar primary care office environment is much easier and less painful than a regular blood draw.

A Lead Care II machine.

“We’ve actually tried the LeadCare II lances (the instruments used to prick the child’s finger) on ourselves, and you can barely feel it. Most children don’t even cry when they’re poked. Sometimes, we give them a lollipop or a toy to distract them, and it’s fairly easy.”

Consequently, “we have a much higher success rate (for performing the test) and parents are happier,” she said.

Following Up To Find the Cause

The nurses follow up immediately if a child’s lead level is high. They refer the child to a lab or hospital for a regular blood draw. With the added urgency of a high blood-lead level reading, parents are much more likely to make sure they get the test done.

Based on the findings, Gorski and Macri work with the Herkimer County Health Department to provide appropriate recommendations and resources to the child’s family to eliminate or lessen the family’s exposure to lead.

“Testing is especially important where we live because it’s a high lead exposure area. With this technology, we can decrease the risk for developmental delays in children that lead exposure can cause,” Gorski said.

Why Lead Poisoning Is Dangerous

AHealthierUpstate.org interviewed Alison J. Swartz of Herkimer HealthNet Inc. about the dangers of lead poisoning.

How do children become exposed to lead?

Lead-based paint is the biggest concern. When lead-based paint or varnish is disrupted, paint dust or chips can contaminate a room. Opening and closing windows, for example, can disrupt lead-based paint.

There is potential for lead poisoning if a child breathes in the dust or puts a paint chip in their mouth. Other sources of lead exposure can include soil, old tools, lead pipes, antiques, pottery, children’s toys, certain makeup, spices and jewelry. Check the New York State Department of Health link to learn more about lead and safety recalls at www.nyhealth.gov/environmental/lead.

How can I lessen lead exposure?

No amount of lead is safe in a child’s system. Therefore, we urge parents to keep their children away from home repairs. Parents should also talk to their healthcare provider and local health department about proper cleaning methods to avoid lead paint dust exposure. Pregnant women should heed this advice, too.

Why is it so important to detect elevated blood lead levels early?

The earlier that lead in the blood is detected, the quicker the underlying cause can be addressed. By law, children must be tested at age one. Then, children must be tested a second time at age two. It’s important to remove the child from the environment or eliminate the lead source if lead levels are elevated. Other children in the same environment are also at risk for lead exposure and should receive follow-up care.

Binghamton High Poverty Area Gets Healthier

The north side of Binghamton, New York, was in desperate need. Not only does it have a high rate of obesity, but it also has the highest rate of poverty in the county. Making matters worse, the only grocery store in walking distance or on the bus line closed. It was hard to find affordable or quality fresh foods.

The Northside Healthy Lifestyles Program

The United Way of Broome County stepped up to help by creating the “Northside Healthy Lifestyles Program.” The program increased residents’ access to healthy food, in particular locally grown fruits and vegetables, and taught them about nutrition. The program also provided physical fitness opportunities for families to combat childhood obesity. But there was still something missing.

More Help Needed For Binghamton

Program coordinators soon learned that more was needed to improve the residents’ health. Community members wanted important health screenings and physical education activities for their families. They’d also benefit from health coaching and chronic disease management, which the program lacked.

“Families didn’t know where to get started,” said Kim Schwartz, program coordinator and physical activity specialist for the United Way of Broome County.

A Customized Approach To Getting Healthy

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield stepped in to partner with the United Way of Broome County with a three-year grant to enhance the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition Program. The program could now expand services to better support the community.

They added a new program, called the “Northside Health Coaching Program,” to provide individual motivational health coaching, physical education opportunities, peer counseling and free health screenings.

“The unique aspect of this program is that all participants will receive a customized approach to getting healthy,” said Jessica Renner, Excellus BCBS regional president.

Small Changes Have a Big Health Impact in Binghamton

The new partnerships and programs have helped the community. Northside community members are now learning about nutrition, taking yoga classes, learning stress management skills, and trying different programs to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“Small adjustments add up to a big difference,” stated Schwartz. “Trained health coaches work with participants to make lasting changes together.”

After six months in the program, one program participant, Laura Race, has lost 89 pounds. She’s gone from a size 22 to a size 16.

“My blood pressure has improved, and my cholesterol has gone down. My doctor told me that health-wise, I’m a whole new person,” said Race.

Laura Race

Food, Fitness, and Bikes, too!

The enhanced Northside Healthy Lifestyles Program also has a new component called Fresh Cycles. The Fresh Cycles program helps kids and their parents with bike maintenance, including donated bikes, and recycling.

Adult volunteers provide hands-on instruction about basic bicycle maintenance and repair. They also educate about safe riding habits, e.g., wearing a helmet, following traffic laws and being visible on the roads. Group rides are open to anyone who wants to peddle through Binghamton’s neighborhoods, parks, and roadways.

“Together with Excellus BCBS, we’re making the health and wellness of Binghamton’s north side our top priority. Our goal is to get people to ‘Move More in 2017’ and take a more active role in their health care,” said Schwartz.

If It’s Hard To Be Healthy, You’ll Love This Easy Meal

I recently dined on quite the spread: Homemade corn tortilla chips with southwestern black-eyed pea and corn salad. Oh, and apple crisp for dessert.

People with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and the staff who help them, whipped up this healthy and very tasty meal. They prepared these foods during the Arc of Monroe’s first-ever Cooking Matters class with Foodlink and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

The six-week program taught them how to cook healthy meals, safely handle food, read nutrition labels and shop for healthy items. Educators from Foodlink and Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York taught the classes.

The recipes were designed to be simple, healthy and safe to make for those with disabilities. But what I loved about the recipes was that anyone could easily do them!

How to Make Homemade Corn Tortilla Chips

Never again will I buy a bag of tortilla chips from the grocery store. I can make a healthier and lower-salt version with this recipe:

Print Recipe
Homemade Corn Tortilla Chips
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Cut each corn tortilla into six triangles
  3. Coat a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray
  4. Place tortilla slices on baking sheet. Lightly spray the chips with non-stick cooking spray to prevent burning
  5. Bake until golden brown and crispy, about 8-10 minutes
Recipe Notes

For a healthier twist, try whole wheat tortillas instead of corn tortillas. Serve with salsa, hummus, bean dip or chilli

Other recipes to try:

Southwestern Black-eyed Pea and Corn Salad

Apple Crisp

One More Easy Cooking Tip

Janet Williams of Penfield helps people with disabilities at the Arc shop for food, prepare meals and do other things to live independently.

Janet Williams of the Arc of Monroe

After completing the Cooking Matters program, Williams said she’s better prepared to help clients live healthier.

“I think it’s harder for this population to be healthy,” Williams said. “Unhealthy foods are easier to access; they’re addicting and seen as more ‘cool’ among their peers.”

Williams learned, for example, that it’s OK to buy canned vegetables and beans, even if there’s added salt in the foods. Just rinse the foods to get rid of the salt before using them.

Having canned beans and corn in your pantry can make it easy to make simple foods, such as a healthy salsa.

“I’m really excited about what we learned,” she added. “It’s seriously good stuff.”

The Cooking Matters class.

The program was made possible by an Excellus BCBS grant, which supported the classes and provided participants with coupons to shop at the Curbside Market truck, Foodlink’s farm stand on wheels. The truck was parked outside every class so participants and other Arc staff members could shop for healthy foods.

Mobile Dentist Office Comes to RIT

Michael Shea, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, hadn’t seen the dentist in more than a year.

But on Thursday, Shea stood outside a SMILEmobile parked on the RIT campus. He was ready for a cleaning.

“It was convenient,” said Shea, a fourth-year student from Connecticut. He gestured at the big mobile unit behind him. “You have a dentist office on wheels right here.”

For the first time ever, this “dental office on wheels” stopped at the Rochester Institute of Technology on Oct. 5. The SMILEmobile provides treatment to students who are otherwise unable to access care.

The SMILEmobile is part of UR Medicine’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health. The Eastman Institute partnered with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and RIT to provide this service for interested students.

Shea visited the mobile office to get his teeth cleaned. He’s seen people who neglect their teeth, Shea said, and they “don’t look very good.” Plus, it can be hard to get rid of all the plaque on your own, he said.

Michael Shea, a student at RIT, waits outside the SMILEmobile for his dental visit.

First truly mobile dental office

The Eastman Institute has other signature SMILEmobiles, which are trailers that set up at city schools for weeks at a time. However, this unit is the first truly mobile vehicle. It has been traveling to area nursing homes, refugee centers, and group homes to provide much-needed care to patients who have various access issues and otherwise wouldn’t receive care.

The custom built unit has a wheelchair lift and three dental chairs, including a movable air glide chair to allow for easier access. Services include dental examinations, cleanings, fillings, extraction, and dentures, among other procedures.

Another student at the SMILEmobile on Thursday was Melina Hillen of California. She was there to get her molars checked out.

The second-year student hadn’t had the time to visit the dentist in the last year. At one point she was also feeling a little bit of pain in her teeth. Her mother encouraged her to set up an appointment. Visiting the SMILEmobile was also very convenient, Hillen said, since she didn’t have to leave campus.

Melina Hillen of RIT waits for her appointment with the SMILEmobile.

Too busy to visit the dentist

In upstate New York, about half of adults ages 18 to 24 have not visited the dentist in the last year, according to an Excellus BCBS analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 15 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds have also had at least one tooth removed because of tooth decay or gum disease.

“College is a busy time for students, and many miss their dental appointments,” said Neal Levitt, DDS, of Levitt and Zugner Dental Group and a consultant with Excellus BCBS. “But dental health is linked to overall health, and patients of all ages should see a dentist regularly.”

The SMILEmobile is making its next trip to the RIT campus on Oct. 23. For more information or to make an appointment, call (585) 475-3963.

Finding Undetected Vision Issues in Kids

“Mark,” a preschooler, always seemed to be getting in trouble, acting out and having a hard time learning. Turns out, there was good reason. He had double vision. Until the McGraw Lions Club screened him as a part of their “see” program, his condition had gone undetected.

“At that age, he was still not verbal enough to perform an eye chart test. We performed a vision screening for him and found he needed to be referred for further assessment by an eye doctor,” said Cathi Bernardo, president of the McGraw Lions Club.

Mark’s parents took him for a comprehensive eye exam. His eye doctor diagnosed him with double vision and prescribed glasses. Once his double vision was corrected, he not only did better in preschool, but behaved better, too.

“In one year, this small change made a huge difference in his life. Now he can start kindergarten on time rather than be held back,” said Bernardo

“If the diagnosis had been delayed, he might have struggled more. But the camera caught that something was going on.”

A Camera of Their Own.

The McGraw Lions Club bought a screening camera in the spring of 2017, thanks to funds from an Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Community Health Award. Before, they had used a camera shared among 30 other Lions Clubs throughout the state. With their own camera, the McGraw Lions have dramatically increased the number of screenings they perform. With more screenings, they can identify eye disorders in more area children and help them get treatment.

Bernardo says current camera technology is a major improvement for screening children for vision problems. In the past, the screening consisted of the child covering one eye and identifying letters and numbers on a chart. The test was geared for older children who knew how to read, talk, and sit still during the test.

Now, the Lions simply take a picture of the child’s eye from about a meter away using their special camera. The camera can detect amblyopic disorders, where vision in one eye is reduced because the eye and brain are not working together properly. The camera can also detect nearsightedness, farsightedness, and other irregularities. Capturing the image takes less than 10 seconds and requires no action from the child. Even restless or non-verbal children can be screened fairly easily.

The camera produces a report that categorizes the result as either a “pass” or a “refer.” If a child gets a “refer,” the Lions recommend that the parents take the child to see an eye doctor for a comprehensive eye exam. The Lions do not diagnose disorders or recommend treatment.

 When Should I Check My Child’s Vision?

Children should have comprehensive eye exams early and often, starting at 6 months of age, according to the American Optometric Association.

Many parents, especially those juggling work schedules and transportation issues, struggle to get their child to the eye doctor or may put it off entirely. By providing free screenings, the Lions draw parents’ attention to the importance of eye health, helping ensure children who need professional examination get it. The Lions also help with the cost of glasses for children whose families may have trouble affording them.

McGraw Lions Club members perform eye screenings for children in schools, preschools and churches throughout Cortland County. They screen youth up to the twelfth grade, but primarily focus on children between the ages of 6 months to 6 years. The earlier in life an eye disorder is discovered and treated, the better the outcome for a child’s vision.

“About 10 percent of kids from birth to 6 are going to have something that needs to be treated. We want to detect those children and get them in to the health care system for proper treatment,” said optometrist Dr. Edward Cordes, national chairman of the Lions KidSight Foundation and past International Lions Club director.

Screenings have even proven to be life-saving, helping uncover two cases of a rare childhood cancer of the eye, retinoblastoma. Without the screening, the cancer may have advanced without the parents’ knowledge.

Knights of the Blind

In their earliest days, Lions clubs throughout the world adopted eye and vision health as a central cause. Speaking at a convention in 1925, Helen Keller, who was a Lion, challenged International Lions Club members to “become knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

From then on, the Lions committed themselves to preventing blindness and improving the lives of those who are blind and hearing impaired.

At the McGraw Lions Club in Cortland County, the 35 members work on a variety of local community service projects. Their biggest project by far is their “See” vision screening program.

Learning at full potential

Because as much as 80 percent of children’s learning is through vision, the need for early screening is especially urgent.

“If a child is visually impaired, like Helen Keller was, that does not mean that they can’t learn or that they won’t be successful. They absolutely can. It’s just a lot more challenging. If unaddressed, it makes it more difficult for them to reach their full potential,” said Cordes.

Bernardo agrees, “That’s why we do it. We want to help these kids do better in school and catch it early.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Preventive Services Task Force, instrument-based screening is a valid method for screening very young children. For more information about vision screening, contact your child’s pediatrician or family physician.

Spotlight on Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez

She is an original member of Garth Fagan’s “Bottom of the Bucket, But” Dance Company, the precursor to Garth Fagan Dance. A longtime educator, she is currently director of community partnerships for the Rochester Central School District. She created Borinquen Dance Theatre in 1981 to serve youth and help them “find the desire to succeed through the discipline of dance.” 

In April 2017, she received the 10th annual Woerner Kollmorgen Award for Community Service at Nazareth College.

Borinquen Dance Theatre is very unique. How did you come up with it?

The history of Borinquen Dance Theatre began at the Puerto Rican Festival in 1981 when Garth Fagan spontaneously announced that I would be offering dance classes. When he made that comment, he was telling me to go out into the community and share my artistic talent.  I had danced with “Bottom of the Bucket, But” for eight years and had experienced closure with that chapter in my life. His announcement planted a seed and allowed me to go forward to teach and help others and continue dancing but in a different capacity. I started with adults teaching exercise classes but shifted only four years later to focus on youth because of the high drop-out rate.

How has dance helped your students lead a healthier life?

Being part of the dance program helps the students learn that their bodies are like sacred temples. It is important for them to learn that living healthy is vital in order for them to manage the rigor of the classes. Dance is a form of exercise that is good for the mind, the body and the spirit. It is also fun, leads to creativity and allows you to showcase your talent. It also requires a level of discipline, though, that requires students to take care of their bodies through fitness and healthy eating.

You seem very (very) busy. How do you juggle it all?

I try to ensure that I take good care of myself first. So, that means finding time to ride my bike with my husband, going for nice long walks, as well as taking yoga and Pilates. If I can, I find the time to sit down and read a book. I prefer wellness books that reaffirm how important it is to take care of yourself and find a balance for everything I have going on in my life.

Which type of Latin Dance is your favorite?

My favorite type of Latin Dance is plena because of what it represents. The dance is closest to our roots with dancers wearing three-tiered skirts that represent our native Taino-Arawak, African and Spanish influences. Those influences are what make Puerto Ricans unique as a people. We must maintain those cultural connections for our younger generations. That’s why I close every Borinquen performance with “La Plena.”

Which type of dance gives you the hardest workout?

For the hardest workout, contemporary and modern dance genres are demanding because it challenges the use of your body and weight, defining shapes, lines and balance. This form of dance requires discipline and a willingness to work beyond your comfort zone. You really have to push yourself and take your skills to another level.

 What else do you do to stay active?

As I mentioned, I enjoy bike riding and taking walks as well as taking flamenco and other dance classes whenever possible. I recently took on tap dancing and performed with my students at Borinquen Dance Theatre’s community performance on April 29 to celebrate our 36th anniversary.

What’s the most important thing you do to stay healthy?

I try to eat a nutritious and balanced diet and to pay attention to what I’m putting into my body. I also utilize the Fitbit as a tool to keep me focused on my fitness goals. Eating well and staying active are essential. A fitness instructor once told me staying healthy is 70 percent what you eat and 30 percent how much you exercise. That has becomes my day-to-day practice.

What advice do you have for others?

Find a friend or peer to work with on staying fit. As a team, you can encourage each other, become part of some kind of program and work with each other to fulfill your goals. Sticking to a fitness plan is not easy to do by yourself. That’s why it makes more sense to team up with someone or a group of people whether at the workplace, with a friend or someone who has similar goals. Having a fitness partner also makes staying healthy fun and relieves stress, since you have more of a support system.

Could you share some of your favorite healthy eating tips?

Eating many fruits and vegetables as well as eating a lot of greens, drinking a lot of water and ensuring you have some type of protein and even some carbohydrates. You should also check your calorie intake, which helps ensure you’re eating a balanced meal. But one must be careful to not take a diet too far or skip meals, which would not constitute eating healthy.

Where are your favorite healthy spots in the community?

My husband and I like to ride our bikes along the Erie Canal. I like the canal because you can bike or walk and grab a bite to eat at restaurants which offer healthy options. I also like to walk in the Park and East avenues area. Long walks are good just to talk and relieve whatever stress we might be experiencing in our busy lives.

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is a proud supporter of Borinquen Dance Theatre and granted the group a $3,500 Community Health Award in 2017.