Teaching Nutrition as a Prescription for Better Health

Utilizing a partnership between FBSJ and Lifecycles Health Center to Bring Better Health to Camden.

It’s unseasonably warm in the last days of February as we sit in a vacant apartment on the sixteenth floor of Northgate Tower in Camden waiting for our interview subjects to get home from school, who are presumably taking more time than usual so that they can enjoy the unusually warm day. “In this area, the kids don’t have a lot,” says Sherrice Johnson, the Case Manager for Lifecycles Health Center a newly established medical clinic at the apartment complex. “There’s not many places for them to play in – a space for them to really enjoy.”

With little neighborhood space for them to utilize, the vacant apartment we’re waiting in serves a dual-purpose not only as our interview space for the evening, but also as a safe setting for a weekly cooking class. The Healthy Cooking for Children class, which ran for three weeks in January, was unique in that students’ ages ranged from four years old to fourteen years old teaching them everything from proper knife techniques to identifying healthy food choices and preparing wholesome recipes such as vegetable stir fry and fruit salad. Parents of younger children stayed to assist during the class and take home groceries were included for each students’ family.

Students from the Northgate HLI Cooking Class pose with their classmates.

Johnson chuckles as she explains how the partnership between Lifecycles and FBSJ came to fruition. “Not to sound silly, but it truly was out of a hunger to connect them to a local resource that could teach them how to be nutritious that we came across the Food Bank and your services.” A non-profit designed to provide services to those who are uninsured or underserved in areas that are resource-poor, the team at Lifecycles works to help individuals connect with organizations that are locally available to them, such as FBSJ. Dr. Tanya Wynder, the CEO and founder of Lifecycles began the clinic as a mobile site in North Philadelphia which led to the expansion of this clinic at Northgate established this past November.

“The concept started many years ago from working in inner-city hospitals as a nurse and noting the amount of people who would come in with asthma and end up on a ventilator,” says Dr. Wynder. “We’re here to treat people regardless of their ability to pay or who they are or where they came from – We aim to provide high-quality care that can turn lives around.”

Understanding which clients have health issues, the team works to target their specific needs and connect their immediate family members and children, as well. The Feeding America network reports that 84% of family households admit to purchasing the cheapest food available knowing it was not the healthiest option in order to provide enough food for the family. With such tough decisions facing many American households, it’s easy to comprehend how child obesity rates continue to sustain. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, one in five school-aged children have obesity in the United States.

“Families are forced to make decisions they don’t want to make in order to keep their lights on, and although many understand fast food may not be the best option, it’s often times their only solution,” states President & CEO Val Traore who spearheaded the development of FBSJ’s Healthy Living Initiative in 2011, “A key part of our core mission is to ensure these families not only have access to nutritious food, but also have the tools they need to lead healthy lives for themselves and their children.”

A student slices kiwi while making fruit salad.

As an intrinsic part of FBSJ’s overall mission, the HLI nutrition education program has flourished into an expansive curriculum of focused coursework benefitting kids, seniors, diabetics, teens, and many more. For the kids at Northgate, this particular HLI class provides a safe space for play. “This cooking class really gave them an environment where they could engage with one another in healthy behavior, and it’s something that felt like an instant reward for them.” states Johnson. “We promote so many concepts like graduating school or losing weight where the reward is something that’s very distant, but with the cooking class they get that instant gratification that reinforces what we’re teaching them.”

Nana, a third grader who graduated from the HLI class at Northgate, walks into the apartment with her mom and infant sister wearing a bright orange medal around her neck, an award for making the honor roll. I congratulate her as she explains why she wants to be a chef when she grows up. “I love to cook!” says Nana who recites all of the recipes they made. “We made homemade mac and cheese with little pieces of broccoli in it, but the pancakes with fruit were my favorite.”

Nariyah, a third grader, who graduated from the HLI cooking class.

Nariyah, another third grader who graduated from the cooking class tells me that she liked the pancakes too, but she also liked other elements of the class. “My favorite part was that they let us cook the meals by ourselves,” says Nariyah. She too wants to become a chef when she grows up and when I ask her about her favorite food, she exclaims: “Everything!”

Of the sixteen students who participated, twelve of them graduated and 99% of them stated that they felt more confident talking to their families about what they learned and the foods they tried. For Johnson, the class’ success was measured by the number of students’ requests. “The kids are still asking about it and want to know when it’s coming back!” A grant-funded course, the HLI class is grounded until more funds become available, but given the students’ clear enthusiasm and the program’s impact on their lives, the HLI team are focused on bringing cooking back to Northgate as soon as they can.