November 18, 2011: Transcript of New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah

TOP November 18, 2011: Transcript of New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah

Read the transcript from the web chat with NYS Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah on November 18, 2011.

Dr. Shah said:
Good afternoon, and welcome to this week’s online chat. I am Dr. Nirav Shah, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health. While the Health Department works to protect and improve the health of all New Yorkers in many ways, for so many of us during the holidays our focus turns to food. As such, the focus of our chat for this week will be on hunger and nutrition issues, as well as food safety. Under the leadership of Governor Cuomo, New York State administers hunger prevention programs, supports the work of food banks and food pantries, and works in a variety of settings to ensure that the food individuals are eating is healthy and nutritious. I look forward to responding to your questions on this very important topic.

Question from Dave in Central Square:
Will New York State continue to follow the antiquated guidelines for school lunch nutrition? Do you believe pizza is a vegetable?

Dr. Shah said:
This issue is a very heated controversy at the federal level right now. The department has been very supportive of the work done by the Institutes of Medicine and the USDA to bring the school and nutrition standards into alignment with current scientific evidence, and we've provided comments to USDA in favor of the proposed regulations. Although there have been some setbacks, the new USDA regulations still hold standards that will double the servings of fruits and vegetables, increase whole grains and low-fat dairy, and set limits on calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats. Many schools in New York State have already made significant improvements to their school meals, adding salad bars, participating in the Farm-to-School program and developing local nutrition policies. The Department has provided some funding in targeted communities to work with schools to address the overall school nutrition environment and identify ways to implement the improvements at low or no cost. Although the Department does not oversee school programs, we do oversee the Child and Adult Care Food Program which sets nutrition standards for more than 14,000 child care and after school programs in the state. I am proud to say that New York is one of four states that has enhanced nutrition standards in child care above the federally established requirements.

Question from Sharon in Minerva:
Our town has lost it's gleaned food program because whoever was delivering it to us can no longer afford the gas due to budget cuts. A program like this that has an immediate effect on hungry families should be fully funded, why are you cutting money to programs and then turning around and asking how can we help?

Dr. Shah said:
The Department recently awarded $28.7 million to 48 organizations statewide for a variety of emergency food relief services, through a competitive application. The eight regional food banks in New York State, which receive state funding, provide assistance to over 2,600 emergency food relief organizations. We will work with these organizations to assure that those in the greatest need are supported through these funds.

Question from John in Buffalo:
What is the extent of the problem with hunger in New York?

Dr. Shah said:
Although it’s difficult to say exactly how many New Yorkers are experiencing hunger, data from the Department’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program indicates that there were over 30 million requests for assistance at emergency food relief organizations in 2010. Over 3 million people live in poverty in NYS and this group is likely to be the most frequent requestors of emergency food assistance. Many of the individuals requesting assistance through the food pantries and soup kitchens supported through this program are also participating in other nutrition programs such as food stamps and WIC, but are finding that with the rising cost of food they are not able to make ends meet.

Question from Angie in Endicott:
If my child is in day care, how can I know if she is getting healthy meals?

Dr. Shah said:
One way is to find out if your child’s day care program participates in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a program that provides meal reimbursement to child care programs that serve nutritious meals and snacks to children. Research has shown that the children attending CACFP-participating child care programs are served more nutritious meals than those in non-CACFP-participating programs.

Question from Nina in Parkchester, NY:
Who is responsible for the food that can be served in schools? My children complain about the school food.

Dr. Shah said:
The State Education Department oversees the USDA funded School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. They are required to meet standards for the meals set by the federal government. Although the Department does not oversee these programs, we do provide some funding in targeted communities to work with schools to address the overall school nutrition environment.

Question from Tom in Holtsville/Suffolk County:
Food is so expensive these days and I'm supposed to be eating healthier- what can I do to eat healthy that won’t cost more and take a lot of planning and preparation time?

Dr. Shah said:
Here are a few tips - Plan your meals and snacks for the week according to your budget. Check the fliers for coupons and sales that will cut your food costs. Choose generic or store brands if they are cheaper than name brands. Buy unprepared foods instead of convenience foods. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables in season and buy frozen and canned vegetables with less salt when fresh produce isn’t available. Save time and money by preparing and freezing vegetable soups, stews or other dishes in advance, when you have the time. Try a few meatless meals by using beans and peas or try “no cook” meals like salads. Incorporate leftovers in other meals. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has four Food Plans that show people how to eat a healthy diet at various cost levels. By following the USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan, a family can eat a healthier diet, including more vegetables and fruits, at less than what they are spending on food. Visit these websites for additional tips, ideas and recipes.

Question from Jim in Buffalo:
Where can I find the latest information on good nutrition recommendations?

Dr. Shah said:
USDA recently updated recommendations to encourage consumers to make healthier food choices. MyPlate can be accessed at The MyPlate icon demonstrates that half your plate should be fruits and vegetables.

Question from Joe in Syracuse :
My neighbor gets food vouchers for herself and her two children through the WIC program. What is WIC? Can anyone get food from WIC? What foods do you get

Dr. Shah said:
WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children. The program provides nutrition education, nutritious foods and health care referrals to women, infants and children. To be eligible, you must be a resident of NYS and be: a pregnant woman, an infant or child up to five years old, a mother of a baby who is up to six months old OR, a breastfeeding mother of a baby that is up to 12 months old, and meet income eligibility guidelines. The food package is personalized for each participant, and includes dairy, protein, whole grain cereals and breads, canned or dried beans, and cash value vouchers for vegetables and fruits. Recent changes to acceptable foods has lowered the fat and sodium content and increased the fiber content of food packages. More information is available at the WIC web page:

Question from Darcy in Binghamton:
My toddler only wants to eat the same foods every day. What can I do to get him to try something new?

Dr. Shah said:
It is natural for children to be cautious with new foods. Some children need to be exposed to a new food 10 or more times before they accept it; others use food as a way to be in control. Children who are exposed to a variety of healthy foods when young are more likely to eat a varied diet as older children and adults. Here are some tips: Make trying new foods a game. Each week, involve your child in selecting a new food to try and involve your child in preparing this new food. Children are more likely to try a new food if they know where it came from and had a hand in preparing it. Create a routine at your house in which everyone is encouraged to try new foods. They don’t have to finish it all, but encourage them to try a bit. Award good behavior with praise, a hug, or a sticker. Avoid using foods as a reward or punishment. Role model eating healthy foods. When your child observes you eating a new (healthy) food, they are more likely to try it themselves.

Question from Mark in Oswego:
I tried a food pantry a long time ago and the food wasn't anything I'm used to eating. Is there any way I can get only the amount I need and just a small amount of the things I'll use? I hate to waste food.

Dr. Shah said:
Many of the food pantries in New York State are moving to a “client choice” model where the food pantry guest chooses, within specific categories (like vegetables, for example), which foods they prefer. With this model of service, there is less waste and better client service.

Question from Steve in Syracuse:
If I want to donate to my local food pantry, what foods are needed most?

Dr. Shah said:
When donating to food drives, it is recommended that you consider donating non-perishable nutritious food such as: whole grain cereals and crackers, canned vegetables and fruits packed in water or light syrup, dried fruit, calcium fortified juices, and water packed tuna.

Question from Abby:
Who should get a flu shot?

Dr. Shah said:
Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone age 6 months and older. The injectable vaccine can be used in all age groups. The nasal vaccine can be used for otherwise healthy people age 2-49 (not pregnant).

Question from Edward in East Greenbush:
I saw the ichoose 600! Campaign sponsored by the Department of Health. What does ichoose 600 mean?

Dr. Shah said:
The Department’s iChoose600™ public health campaign is designed to support moms in the four counties of New York State (outside NYC) that are enforcing existing menu labeling legislation: Albany, Schenectady, Suffolk and Ulster. Using menu labeling in fast food restaurants and staying under 600 calories per meal is a good target when eating out at fast food restaurants, no matter what someone’s caloric needs are for a day.

Question from Kaii in Albany:
I’m a senior on a fixed income. Are there nutrition programs in NYS that can help?

Dr. Shah said:
Many seniors don’t realize that they would be eligible for SNAP (food stamp) benefits. The Office on Aging also provides nutrition assistance to seniors in many communities through meals-on-wheels and the congregate meals program. In Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn, the Department of Health provides supplemental food to low-income seniors through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). You can find out more about CSFP at:

Question from Scott:
I heard the flu vaccine is the same as last year- if this is the case, do I need to get it again?

Dr. Shah said:
Yes. Everyone can benefit from the booster effect of the vaccine.

Question from George in Cazenovia:
I see that restaurant menus include calories now. How many calories should I be eating?

Dr. Shah said:
The average adult needs about 2,000 calories per day. This guideline is for adults who are moderately physically active. To get a better estimate of your specific calorie needs go to for a personalized plan.
Question from Rob in Huntington Bay/Suffolk County:
Does DOH participate on the Governor’s Council on Food Policy?

Dr. Shah said:
The New York State Council on Food Policy was created in 2007 to address the fact that agriculture is a critically important industry in New York State; that hunger is a serious problem facing many families; that access to affordable, fresh and nutritious food is a serious problem for many families, and that there are significant health and economic benefits to the State and its residents from expanding agricultural production. The Council meets twice yearly to address issues that fall into these focus areas. For more information on the Council’s activities, visit the website at

Question from Susan in Buffalo:
How can there be so many hungry people in New York State when there is an obesity epidemic? Do we still need to be providing hunger programs for people?

Dr. Shah said:
Low income families may consume lower-cost foods with higher calories when they do not have the money to buy a healthier balance of more nutritious foods. The quality of food is generally affected before the quantity of food eaten. Some experts also believe that going through cycles where there are times of adequate food and then other times when there is not enough food (like at the end of the month) can contribute to obesity.

Question from Richard in Utica:
It seems that many allowed dental and medical procedures for Medicaid patients have been reduced or eliminated completely. To treat only a portion of the patient's needs because of financial problems in NYS seems to violate the Standard of Care. Your comments, please.

Dr. Shah said:
Under Governor Cuomo's leadership, we are working to reform the Medicaid program to improve the quality of care provided at a sustainable cost for taxpayers. We have mostly avoided reductions in eligibility and other benefits. The Governor's Medicaid Redesign Team has found other ways to make the program more cost-effective.

Question from Andrew in Jamaica, Queens:
Kids today have awful eating habits and are tempted by all the wrong types of food. What are we doing to help them make smart choices?

Dr. Shah said:
The Department of Health funds several nutrition programs that support the establishment of healthy eating habits from the start. These programs promote breastfeeding, support healthy food choices, decrease screen time, increase physical activity and help parents role model desired eating behaviors. We also support many community-based obesity and chronic disease prevention projects that target children and families where they live, learn, and play.

Dr. Shah said:
Thanks to all who participated in our online chat today. We appreciate your interest and welcome your input. More information about nutrition, food safety and the whole range of health issues facing New Yorkers can be found on the DOH website at: