As a member of United Way Worldwide’s Health Team, I enjoy gathering and sharing innovative and promising practices with local United Ways on how to improve their community’s health. As a foodie and amateur cook residing in the Washington, D.C. metro area, I am especially interested in the Slow Food movement [SS1] and community driven efforts to create and change regional food systems—ensuring that fresh, healthy, locally produced foods are affordable and accessible to all.
And nothing makes me more excited than some of afterschool opportunities available to young people that offer them the hands-on experience to connect with their local food system and explore fun and healthy ways to prepare foods. Two such examples are the Brainfood Kitchen All Stars and Community MVPs and Common City Good Farm’s Learning for Environment, Agriculture and Food (LEAF) Program.
Brainfood is a local DC youth development non-profit founded with the goal of using food and cooking to provide high school-aged youth with supervised and structured activities during non-school hours. Brainfood participants learn about food, nutrition, cooking, and jobs in the food industry through a variety of activities, including year-long cooking and leadership classes, restaurant visits, and shadowing local chefs.
Kitchen All Stars is their marquee program, where participants engage in 2.5- hour long classes twice a week throughout the school year. Classes cover a range of topics, including different cooking techniques, kitchen safety, working as a team, food groups, spices and seasonings, and cooking on a budget. Supplementing these classes are field trips to local restaurant kitchens and interactions with professionals in the food industry. Through the Community MVPs program, Kitchen All Star graduates are given the support and structure to move on to the next level—using the skills they’ve acquired to plan, facilitate, and deliver healthy cooking workshops throughout the DC community. Both programs offer youth the opportunity to learn firsthand the discipline, leadership, skills and techniques it takes to thrive in a fast paced commercial kitchen.
Located in the heart of one of DC’s most economically diverse neighborhoods, Common City Good Farm is a community-supported urban farm aiming to provide education, opportunity, and fresh food to urban residents. Understanding that fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables can be a challenge to locate in many economically-distressed urban areas, the farm is committed to ensuring low-income DC community members have a choice when meeting their food needs. Through the LEAF Program, neighborhood kids ages six to twelve can participate in afterschool and weekend sessions where they explore a whole range of farming activities. Not only do the kids help with planting and harvesting, but they are also taught how to prepare easy recipes to enjoy the fresh fruits and veggies they helped to produce—culminating in a family style dinner after each cooking lesson. They also get to take home extra produce to share at home, passing on the lessons learned to other members of their family.
Both of these examples model just one way to better connect the issues of health and education in practice and for the betterment of future generations. Kids learn why what they put into their bodies matters and are given real, live opportunities to have a say in what such items will be. These programs not only foster connectedness and critical thinking skills, but also birth a group of future leaders who are engaged and committed that such opportunities can remain viable to all.