Thirteen-year-old Michelle had never eaten salad before, but now she loves it. Eight-year-old Gabriel no longer eats junk food. Fifteen-year-old Alexsandra drinks more water and her face no longer breaks out. Eleven-year-old Frances is really into carrots.
Food anecdotes like these are not common for kids living near the poverty line in North Philadelphia, where hunger has increased even as it declines nationwide.
But they are stories regularly told by kids who’ve graduated with their parents from Sunday Suppers, a nonprofit helping families learn to cook healthy meals meant for sharing.
“We need more stuff like this in our community,” said Linda, a 47-year-old single mother of seven who participated in the program.
Next year, Linda is getting her wish. Six years after being founded by Philly chef and sociologist Linda Samost, and two years after the launch of successful weekly classes in Kensington, Sunday Suppers is expanding. A second site in Germantown will open in early 2018 — and plans call for adding one additional location each year going forward.
“We went from idea to pilot in around five months,” Samost told Billy Penn, remembering back to when she was inspired by an Inquirer article about pervasive hunger in North Philly to quit her job and do something about it.
Having spent several decades working as a program director in community health programs, Samost had a very clear idea of what she did not want to do.
“With a lot of nonprofits, you see white people coming into poor neighborhoods and telling people what they need and how to behave,” Samost said. Instead, she wanted to give residents the skills and expertise to take lessons back home and spread them throughout their own communities.
The organization she came up with is different from most others addressing food insecurity. Sunday Suppers is not a feeding program. Not a pantry, or soup kitchen, or food bank.
Instead of providing food, it guides families — mostly mothers and children — through five-month semesters composed of weekly dinner lessons on how to shop for and use fresh vegetables and lean meats to create dishes everyone will enjoy.
“I want to buy broccoli,” one woman told Samost, explaining why she often buys french fries instead, “but what if my kid doesn’t like it? If he doesn’t eat it, I can’t afford to throw it out.”
The classes include tips on cooking healthy and reducing waste, and also focus on the joys and benefits of eating together. Participants do dine after the lesson, and also go home with a bag of ingredients to repeat the meal created that day. They are also given pieces of gently used kitchen equipment (which Samost collects via donation), so they’re able to apply the cooking methods they’ve learned.
After two years of hosting these sessions, with tweaks incorporating feedback along the way, Samost is satisfied that they’re working. Her evidence is both anecdotal and statistical.
Iris, a 51-year-old grandmother of two, provided Samost this assessment: “Since coming to Sunday Suppers my family communicates more,” she said. “We are always talking now. We are just closer now.”
In general, 68 percent of program participants say they communicate more after graduation. Nearly twice as many now say they regularly consume vegetables. Fried food consumption is down to one-third of what it was prior. And after they finish the course, people are taking what they’ve learned, building on it, and spreading the word.
Sunday Suppers has been bringing interested graduates as “peer leaders,” giving them roles in the program and opportunities to increase its impact.
“One graduate told us she used to throw a lot away and now she hardly tosses anything,” Samost said. “So she came in and helped host a lesson on leftovers. How to freeze pieces of vegetable [stems] to make a soup, that kind of thing.”
Samost sees peer leaders as key to expansion, and hopes to eventually bring them on as staff at each new site as it launches in various neighborhoods with high rates of hunger. For now, the Germantown site is a collaboration with Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, which will help manage the location and find participants.
Requirements are simple: The family must have at least one minor child and be eligible for or receive some kind of assistance, whether it’s SNAP, disability or other similar programs. They also have to be ready to want to make an effort to eat healthy, Samost noted.
“Some people are experiencing so many difficulties that eating healthy isn’t going to rise to the top right now,” she said. “This is not just ‘come get a meal and leave.’”
Because the program is so involved — Samost calls it “high-touch” — with only approximately 10 to 12 families (40 to 50 total people) accepted per semester, new locations will make a huge difference in Sunday Suppers’ overall impact.
To determine how to fund expansion beyond Germantown, Sunday Suppers recently convened its first advisory panel. The group is investigating corporate sponsorships, and also partnerships with local restaurants. The potential, Samost believes, is huge. Asked if the model, once built out in Philly, could be expanded to other cities, she was optimistic.
“I haven’t found other programs operating quite like we do,” she said. “In terms of bringing families together. Not just feeding them, but giving them the education and skills to make long-lasting changes.”