By Alex Parks
Systemic change in the world of food is a tough nut to crack. That’s why Wellness in the Schools and FEAST work together to make a lasting impact on how people think about food and wellness. With Wellness in the Schools programming focused on the cooks of tomorrow, and FEAST programming directed towards the cooks of today, we are collectively able to point students and parents in a healthier direction.
In 2013, Sam Polk and his wife Dr. Kirsten Thompson started FEAST (Food Education, Access and Support) as a way to address the imbalances that come with a broken food system. They began to make an impact on thousands of individuals and families in Los Angeles with their free 16 week program, but food and health inequalities go far beyond the borders of Los Angeles. With the help of Wellness in the Schools, FEAST is now able to take their programming all the way across the country to New York City, where it is continuing to transform lives. Dana Rizer, the Executive Director of FEAST, said it best: “FEAST is so proud to partner with Wellness in the Schools. We share the belief that good food has the power to change lives, and we bring different ingredients to the table. By working together, we’re able to ensure that the schools, students and families have the resources to increase health and wellbeing. Through collaboration, we’ve created a winning recipe.”
I was fortunate enough to attend a FEAST program at PS 112 here in Harlem to see this “winning recipe” firsthand. Every class begins with a nutritional discussion, but as this was the first class after the holiday break, everyone took a moment to tell the rest of the group what they did over the holidays. I could already tell that FEAST was transformative when one participant said, “I am happy to be back from break. This is my happy place, where I can be reminded to eat healthy, and be happy.” Today the discussion topic was on making healthier choices when eating out at restaurants. The group leader and participants went back and forth, asking questions, offering suggestions, and discussing the difficulties of making healthy choices when eating out.
After the discussion ended, it was time to cook! The recipes for today were a Chickpea Salad with Tomatoes & Cucumber, and a Sautéed Zucchini, Tomato, and Chickpea Ragout served atop couscous. The recipe printouts even include extra facts and tips about the dish. Participants took turns dicing, measuring, and cooking until all of the food was ready. The food was delicious… both times. Yes, I got seconds.
After everyone was finished eating it was time to get together for the sharing circle. The sharing circle is a safe space for FEAST participants to have a dialogue about a weekly topic. Participants confide in each other, and form a deep connection from the realization that although we all have unique obstacles we face in life, many of us are going through something that somebody else has experienced. The sharing circle is a reminder that you are not alone, and you have a group of people that you can turn to at every FEAST class.
When I walked into the classroom that morning I was not sure what to expect, but when I left the classroom both my stomach and heart were full. I could tell that this program makes a difference for its regular participants because it had made a difference for me after only one class. I learned more about what to avoid when eating out at restaurants, I laughed and smiled while cooking with the rest of the participants, and I heard some truly incredible stories. I was reminded of the greatest aspect of cooking: it brings people together. It brought Wellness in the Schools and FEAST together, allowing for parents and children to cultivate healthy habits as a family. That too, is a winning recipe.