Yesterday evening was the weekly Sunday Suppers program held at Memphis Street Academy in Kensington, Philadelphia. Sunday Suppers is a family meal-based initiative that seeks to improve dietary behaviors, awareness of healthier food purchasing and preparation, and family meal practices. It began as a pilot program that ran on Sunday evenings, but has since moved its host site to Memphis Street Academy, and the program now runs on Thursday evenings. As a graduate student in the Masters program of Public Health, my capstone/thesis project is aimed at completing a program evaluation of Sunday Suppers, to see if it indeed has helped improve dietary behaviors and attitudes as well as increased fresh fruit and vegetable intake in the participating families.
Each week there is a “program” during the first 30-45 minutes of the evening. Sometimes its teaching yoga, sometimes it is an educational piece with a hands-on portion to involve the families that participate. Last night was a special treat, in that the main chef, Kristen, had invited three of her chef friends as guests.
Chef Hayden, who is originally from Trinidad, showed off the preparation of chicken curry, using his family’s recipe. He went through all the steps, from how to properly cut up the chicken breast to how to prepare the curry sauce. He also had whole grain brown rice prepared.
The next station was Chef Lindsay Gilmour, who is originally from New Zealand and who has had her own catering company. Chef Lindsay showed ways to prepare fresh veggies – a veggie saute and cooked greens beans tossed in olive oil and seasoning.
She also instructed those interested in how to best prepare veggies from the slicing and dicing to how to properly blanch them without overcooking.
A third station was hosted by Chef Laquanda, who born and raised in West Philadelphia, and who at age 14 enrolled in a program that teaches adolescents how to cook healthier as well as how to teach others. Now, ten years later, she has already worked with at least 3 non-profits in the food justice realm and is studying culinary arts in Philadelphia.
Chef Laquanda showed how to prepare a healthier snack version of popcorn. This was done by showing how to cook popcorn using a regular cooking pot, then how easily it is to season accordingly. One version was with cinnamon, one was with taco seasoning, and a third was with Parmesan and hot pepper flakes (the take home favorite!)
A fourth station hosted by Chef Kristen was to show how to properly cut a variety of produce. Different techniques for handling the knife were demonstrated and then with parent supervision, families were able to put their skills into action. Carrots and broccoli were the vegetables cut up, and then a bunch of apples were cut into small pieces.
The veggies were then used for appetizers to dip in hummus (store bought), which many participants had not encountered until that night. The apples were part of a large apple crisp that was to be for dessert. The preparation of the crisp topping was demonstrated again by Chef Laquanda.
The greatest part of the evening was watching the families inquire about cooking techniques, get involved in learning new culinary skills, test out new (healthy!) foods, and seem overall excited about the evening. I helped served the meal (served family style), which is an experience in itself, I am sure, for these families. As the population of participants are well under the poverty line, the idea of going out for a nice dinner as a family is well out of reach.
The go-to foods are fast food, quick, fast, and cheap. But at Sunday Suppers, they get the full treatment: nicely furnished tables complete with table linens, flowers, and nice dish and glassware (as opposed to paper or plastic). The volunteers act as servers, refilling water glasses and serving food as though it were a restaurant.
As I was refilling a platter of curried chicken and brown rice, I asked one of the youngsters, named Sergio, whether he was enjoying the meal. His response:
“This is the best different chicken I’ve ever tasted. I mean different because before we came here the only chicken I ate was fried.” This is coming from a child who is about eight years old, if I had to guess.
I am hoping next week to get some anecdotal stories from participants on their favorite meals so far, and why they enjoyed them. It is exciting to hear comments like this young child, and it is equally exciting to see parents and children alike wanting to participate, and then to taste what they helped to create. Small steps are the way to pave the road of change, and it seems that Sunday Suppers is helping families take these steps and begin to make them strides.