While school lunch is an important meal for students, it is only once a day. Real dietary change cannot occur unless it takes root at home, too. Cooking as a family, or even just eating together, teaches children that food is something to be savored, and not scarfed down between commercial breaks of their favorite television shows. It allows them to make a real connection to what they see on their plate.
Pam Koch, the executive director for the Center for Food and Environment at the Teachers College of Columbia University, cooks regularly with her sons Ben, 11, and Garrison, 8. At work and at home, Koch is focused on nutrition education and helping people make healthy decisions. Her children have grown up eating fruits and vegetables that are in season. “It’s definitely part of who we are as a family,” Koch said.
At the Future Leaders Institute Charter School, many students do not have the same access to local resources as the Kochs. Approximately 75 percent of the school’s 300 students receive public assistance and/or qualify for free or reduced meals, according to Pat Charlemagne, the school's chief operating officer. Food is costly, and many parents simply do not have the means to eat healthy. A family of four can eat at a fast-food restaurant for $10. It can easily cost twice as much to buy the ingredients for a home-cooked meal.
Time is limited as well. It is much easier to pick up a Happy Meal at McDonald’s than spend time in the grocery store and then in the kitchen cooking dinner. Fast-food places line the streets and avenues of New York City, especially in neighborhoods like Harlem and the South Bronx, which have high concentrations of both poverty and obesity. With families’ schedules becoming busier, convenience, and processed, unhealthy fare often wins out.
To emphasize the importance of eating healthy dinners as a family, Hamlin’s nonprofit organization hosts Family Dinner Nights once a month at the Future Leaders Institute. The goal is to help families see food in terms of quality, not quantity or convenience, and to demonstrate the availability of budget-friendly, healthy options. Family Dinner Nights include a cooking lesson, games that teach nutritional values and free healthy, freshly-cooked meals from some of the top vegetarian and vegan chefs in the city.
The nutrition lessons helped one parent, Teresa McLeod, change her eating habits. After she learned how much sugar is in a 20-ounce Pepsi, McLeod kicked her cola habit. Six months later, she lost over 10 pounds. "I decided if I can lose weight by stopping the soda, I started paying attention to the things they were telling me is in the food, so I'm not a Big Mac eater anymore. If I do have something bad, I have half instead of whole," McLeod said. She has lost over 30 pounds since going to Family Dinner Night.
Her daughter, Shania, 7, attends the Family Dinner Nights with her mom and helps her cook. The McLeods are one family who have transferred the lunch lessons in school to their dinner tables at home.