Nutrition Education in New York City

by Kearney McDonnell
August 18, 2014

Kearney McDonnell is a rising sophomore from Pipersville, PA. She is a Tri-Lab participant who has plans to study public health and psychology, and is interested in food, food systems, and nutrition. 

City Harvest (CH) is primarily a food rescue organization based in New York City. In recent years, however, it has begun to turn some of its focus towards promoting health eating and nutrition education. As one component of its “Healthy Neighborhoods” initiative, CH offers free cooking classes in schools and community centers for families, kids, teens, and seniors in low income, low access communities.

As a nutrition education intern and chef for five of these cooking courses, I have spent much of this summer in each of New York City’s five boroughs. What struck me most about my time with these different community groups was how much of a reality check I needed when it came to my understanding of how eating patterns and habits might be altered.

When I first saw a recipe for “baked, flaked chicken” in my book of suggested nutritional recipes for kids, I disregarded it as a lesson plan right off the bat. I was trying to promote the use of salad greens, was I not? These kids knew they liked chicken, after all – wasn’t I supposed to introduce them to something new?

It was only after serving a series of unsuccessful, unfamiliar meals (whole grain spaghetti with tomato sauce was a total miss– I couldn’t believe it) that I began to revise my approach.

Later in the course, I backtracked and attempted the chicken (which was dipped in corn flakes and baked, which make the chicken crunchy and look fried), and it was an absolute hit. Many of the kids said they would make it at home, and for the first time asked for the recipe. Which was significant, because the baked chicken contained significantly less fat and salt than its counterpart at the KFC a few blocks away would.

The experience made me realize the importance of taking small steps towards change, and not attempting the leaps and bounds that always seemed to turn the kids off from healthy food in general. It brought home the importance of making healthy food delicious – and not just “I can appreciate the raw purity of this turnip” delicious – but “I contain a little salt, and a little fat,” kid friendly delicious.

Similarly, the first batch of sautéed greens I served were lightly salted and lightly oiled. No one touched them. The second batch, I gave a healthy (non-excessive) dousing of salt and olive oil. The kids loved them, and said they would ask their parents to buy the collard greens, spinach, bok choy, kale (whose names they learned while chopping them) at the supermarket.

By reaching a middle ground on what constituted healthy, I felt like we were offering kids a gateway into healthy eating, instead of turning them off it completely. This is especially important given the stigma that the term “healthy” can sometimes hold – for some the word is synonymous with bland and disgusting.

City Harvest found that in some neighborhoods any marketing attempting to promote healthy eating by using the word “healthy” in it served to turn the targeted consumers off the product, while words like “fresh” and “juicy” drew them to it. In acquainting children with healthy foods with which they are unfamiliar, I think, it is important not to go too far, too fast in our excitement for change, and lose them completely.