Written by Lilian Kuo, Daphne Liu
Edited by Maggie Morgan
Tzu Chi Northeast Region launched the long-awaited 21-Day Healthy Challenge on May 16, 2022. A total of 30 people participated in the first phase; after 21 days of complimentary meals, they not only learned about the power of plant-based eating, they felt it. The core of Tzu Chi’s philosophy is ending the suffering of all beings, and sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet does just that. Another part of Tzu Chi’s mission is to protect the Earth, which a plant-based diet lends itself to as well.
One Volunteer with One Big Idea
Lilian Kuo is a Tzu Chi volunteer from the Long Island location. A large percentage of those who come to this location for food distribution are from the Hispanic community, and others represent various ethnic backgrounds. Lilian said she has noticed a lot about the diets of the recipients, especially since the pandemic.
“We’ve been having nutritionists come in and introduce how to achieve a healthy diet, but nothing seems to be working,” she said. “The volunteers put their heads together to figure out how to help them.”
After learning a lot about the health benefits of the 21-Day Healthy Challenge (an entirely plant-based eating plan) from its success in Malaysia and Taiwan, Lilian started paying attention. She became more mindful of the health habits of the local community and observed many of them are considered overweight. Obesity is a potential threat to a person’s overall health, and many recipients are already struggling with medical issues.
With this in mind, Lilian started an initiative to raise funds for more nutritional food. It wasn’t just about feeding the community, it was about nourishing them. Healthy meals were prepared with less oil, salt, and sugar for the residents with obesity and high blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. These improved meal options were given out to recipients who came for the food distribution.
A Local Restaurant Comes to the Rescue
Finding a restaurant that could help execute her plan was Lilian’s biggest obstacle. After many rejections, Danny Chan, the head of Chuan 88 Restaurant in Little Neck, Queens, stepped up to the plate. Danny, who is also a Tzu Chi volunteer, was up for the challenge and agreed to help volunteers with this huge undertaking.
All seemed to be on track, and things were falling into place, but there was an unexpected twist ahead. The restaurant’s chef responded that he couldn’t meet the requirements of the Health Challenge’s suggested recipes. During their second meeting, Lilian was shocked to receive the news, but she knew she had to move forward.
Lilian Kuo felt defeated. The campaign’s announcement had been released, the preparation was almost complete, and there wasn’t a way to turn back. Confidence and perseverance would be her only saviors, so Lilian got up and dusted herself off. It was going time, and the clock was ticking.
Just in the nick of time, thanks to the efforts of Danny Chan, things worked out. Danny took the time to explain the meaning of the campaign to the owner, going over strategies and details. Danny Chan said, “We had many rehearsals with the chef, we finally made it and the response was very good.” After making a plan, the chef and the owner were on board, and the campaign could be launched as scheduled.
Healing the Mind, Body, and Soul Through Nutrition
Due to budget limits, there were only 30 spots available for the first phase of the challenge. Among the many recipients, people suffering from obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure were given priority. The campaign will provide them with free healthy meal boxes for 21 consecutive days. Free physical checks will be conducted for them before and after the challenge, so they can see first-hand how a plant-based diet can change their lives.
First, every participant underwent a physical, and the results were recorded as their benchmark. Joe Chang, the chairperson of the Long Island branch of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), recommended internal medicine doctor Warren W. HSU M.D. to assist. After learning the details of the 21-Day Healthy Challenge, Dr. Hsu asked his partner laboratory to join the effort; the lab offered testing for participants at a reduced cost, one that was lower than the insurance deductible.
Dr. Hsu also brought in nurses from his clinic and provided equipment to perform the necessary tests for the participants. Having the support of medical professionals, and the opportunity to utilize their resources, checked off another daunting task. Their generosity and expertise allowed the campaign to be as effective (and medically sound) as possible.
It Takes A Village: Participants Support One Another
Most of the participants live in the Freeport area, on the south side of Long Island. The community is predominantly Hispanic and has the highest rate of unemployed residents affected by the pandemic. The two Hispanic volunteers who served as interpreters were small in stature, but both weighed more than 170 pounds. One of them, Gladys Chica, not only struggles with her weight but has a family history of high blood sugar. She even needed help to walk up a few short steps to the stage.
Gladys has been very supportive of Tzu Chi, and she highly appreciated the volunteers’ commitment to the campaign. She offered to make her home a pick-up point so participants could pick up their meals without having to go to the restaurant.
Meal delivery raised yet another concern as the campaign moved forward. On the first day, Lilian and her husband drove for more than half an hour, delivering meals from house to house to the participants. The couple was 30 minutes late due to a traffic jam, but no one batted an eye. Volunteers’ caring actions touched the participants, and they even offered to help pick up and deliver the meals.
One of the participants, Maria Mustafa, arrived at Gladys’ house early to wait for the lunch delivery. She thought the food tasted great, the fact that it was healthy was just a bonus. Maria said joyfully, “Thank God my friend brought me here to get my lunch, I’m so happy to have you, volunteers, I love the food, god bless you all.”
Maria learned that the volunteers had spent a lot of time preparing for the campaign, and had jumped through many hoops to make sure it was launched. She said she was very moved and wanted to join in immediately to help. Maria and another participant went to Chuan 88 at 5 p.m. to pick up meals, taking the workload off the Tzu Chi volunteers. They also coordinated with some of the participants to pick up the meals at pre-planned locations. With Maria and others taking the initiative, others followed suit and solved the problem together.
New Vegetarian Humanitarians: The Pursuit of a Purposeful Diet
Another participant, Yehaida, delivered meals to six other participants. Yehaida’s mother had cancer two years ago, and the doctor asked her to switch to a plant-based diet. The 21-Day Healthy Challenge meals met her mother’s needs and satisfied her taste buds. The mother-daughter duo were ecstatic to participate in the campaign; not only was Yehaida willing to help volunteer, but her mother also vowed to join in when she feels better.
When Yehaida learned that a vegetarian diet can protect the Earth, she said, “It’s great that eating vegetables can make you healthier and save the planet.”
After Gladys’ sister ate the vegan meals, the family started to meet up to go to Chinese grocery stores where there are more vegetable choices. She asked several of the participants who went to pick up the meals if they liked the food provided by Tzu Chi. It seemed they did, as one person said “on a scale of 1 to 10, he would rate it a 20”.
Initially, the volunteers were worried that the participants would throw away the meals because they might not be used to eating with less oil, salt, and sugar. On the first day of the program, volunteers interviewed participants by phone in the evenings, asking them how they were feeling about the food. According to Lilian, “At first, what we were worried about was that they might throw them away. After we made sure they wouldn’t throw the food away, we were relieved.” Much to their surprise, the volunteers found the meals were a major hit.
The Challenge had a simple goal: to introduce a healthier diet to those in need. Not in their wildest dreams did volunteers imagine they’d help a cancer patient. Not once did they think participants would come together and offer to deliver meals themselves. Looking back on the project’s obstacles, Lilian asked herself several times how to carry out such a lofty goal. The enthusiastic response validated her decision. She didn’t give up, and she was elated that she was steadfast about making people healthier.
The volunteer team in Long Island is actively promoting the benefits of this lifestyle. Vegetarianism is a compassionate way to protect life and save the planet, and raise awareness of the importance of health in the Hispanic community. Volunteers are also looking forward to having more funding to accommodate more participants, aiding people in changing their dietary habits so that everyone can enjoy gourmet food while maintaining good health. Eat well, and be well, it’s just that simple.