A Garden Grows at Belmont Park

October 4, 2022

Bringing Fresh Vegetables To The Backstretch 

ELMONT, N.Y. – “Just look at this lovely garden,” said Stella Cardenas, surveying one of the newest and most vibrant additions to the Belmont Park backstretch: a community vegetable garden. 

“Getting this far has taken teamwork, love … and a lot of water.”

Leading a quick tour of the fenced-in 72-by-14-foot plot of land, tucked against a small hill just south of Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn 35, Cardenas, who is the Backstretch Employee Service Team’s (B.E.S.T.) outreach worker and case manager, points out the highlights.

There are two kinds of tomatoes – large and cherry – and zucchinis. There are three kinds of peppers – hot, medium and green bell. A few feet away are eggplants, a patch of green beans, and a variety of herbs, including parsley, mint and cilantro. The bounty and splash of color would do a farm stand proud.

“Look how far we’ve come with some work and a few seeds,” Cardenas said. “Our hope is this will become the model for creating better nutrition here.”

The planting of a community garden is the focus of that model: a crucial part of a pilot program underway at Belmont Park to deliver an array of home-grown vegetables to backstretch families while encouraging a more nutritional diet through workshops. On the agenda is a program to incorporate a few of the vegetables from the garden in menus to be offered at the backstretch cafeteria. 

The garden is actually two 36 ft. x 7 ft. plots planted side by side on land recommended by the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) because it’s fairly central, close to residential dorms, and can be easily watered by a nearby pump.

So, on a muggy day in June, a team from B.E.S.T., the Northwell Health Community Outreach and Community Relations group and Fidelis Care, with shovels in hand, broke ground. Advising them was Northwell Community Relations Program Manager Margaret Schmitt, known as the “Farm lady of Long Island” and formerly of F & W Schmitt’s Family Farm in Melville. The NYRA team then enclosed the garden with fencing. NYRA also regularly waters the property.

“When Northwell and B.E.S.T. asked for our help in identifying a suitable piece of property, we didn’t hesitate for a second,” said NYRA Senior Vice President, Operations & Capital Projects Glen Kozak. “This is a good idea that will benefit a lot of people who work on the backstretch. We’re more than happy to contribute.”

Gardens aren’t new to the backstretch. Look carefully and you’ll see random tomato vines in the nooks and crannies of Belmont Park barns. The Belmont Child Care Association also sports a vegetable garden at its day care center, Anna House, for the children to learn about healthy eating. 

The new garden at Belmont Park fits right into role in the growing holistic approach to healthcare at the track, marking another step forward in Northwell’s emerging relationship with the New York backstretch community. That relationship kicked off in 2020 when Northwell began providing COVID-19 testing for backstretch workers at Belmont Park, and followed in 2021 with dispensing COVID-19 vaccine. More than 90 percent of the hundreds of backstretch workers based at Belmont are vaccinated, which is well above the New York State average. 

“From the vaccine program, we got to know some of the backstretch workers and learn about their lives,” said Northwell Corporate Community Relations Regional Manager Patty McColley. “But we wanted to do more than just give vaccines. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of backstretch workers and help them tackle in some cases, high blood pressure and diabetes. It’s helping people in the community to become healthier and more self-sufficient. This is an issue that’s near and dear to our hearts.”

Northwell’s Clinical Program Manager and registered dietitian nutritionist Anastasia Schepers agreed, calling the garden a “win-win” – a “link between food and health and a way to promote health and prevent disease.”

In early 2022, Northwell’s connection to the backstretch community moved ahead another notch when it assumed the management of Belmont Park’s 1,000-square-foot heath care clinic. Staffed with four rotating Northwell physicians, the Northwell Health/B.E.S.T. Health Care Clinic treats people’s aches and pains, as always, but now takes a more holistic approach to health care by advocating healthy living and preventive care. 

“This community collaboration has been years in the making,” said Vice President of Community Relations at Northwell Health Edward Fraser.

The clinic also added free screenings for breast and colon cancer, a mental health therapist and classes on ergonomics led by a Northwell physical therapist.

“We’re taking a real approach to community medicine and health care on the backstretch,” said B.E.S.T. Executive Director Paul Ruchames. “The clinic for instance is here to deal with the injuries, which it has always done. But what we’re seeing are more people coming in for physicals, and more people interested in learning how to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The planting of the vegetable garden moves the needle ahead even further.”

So even as the fall weather turns colder, the Northwell/B.E.S.T. heath care team are formalizing their plan for the vegetable garden next spring. Upwards of 20 backstretch volunteers are sighed up to help plant next year’s garden with all of them set to take home some of the harvest. Coordinating with several Northwell hospitals and with the cafeteria staff at Belmont, it is planning healthy, low sodium menus to serve in the cafeteria as well as the cooking workshops. 

“It’s important to create a feeling of ownership with the vegetable garden said Schepers. “To change habits takes time, but we’re confident that we’ll succeed. A lot of good things – and healthy, nutritious food – are ahead for the men and women who work on the backstretch at Belmont Park.”

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Photo by NYRA

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