When was the last time your family sat down to eat dinner together? I’m not talking about opening the bag from your favorite fast food restaurant, but actually preparing a meal at home. As lives have become busier, cooking skills have declined. Many parents feel they lack the time and skills to cook a nutritious meal their children will eat, and instead opt for the ease of processed or drive-thru meals. A Springfield area program is working to change all of that.
Making a difference
Dr. Kemia M. Sarraf, M.D., M.P.H. was looking to return to private practice after taking time off for her young children. She had seen an increasing number of patients coming into her clinic with lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer; all of which have a dietary risk factor. Thinking of her growing children and the future they would face, she became convinced the only solution was to prevent these problems before they began. Not just in her own children, but in those of her community. Seven years ago, she made the decision to forego returning to practice medicine in order to focus her energies on community outreach and educating people about nutrition and its link to healthy living.
The non-profit genHkids program with its slogan “Eat Real, Move More” became a 501c3 organization two years ago and hired a small full-time staff. Since then the program has tripled in size. GenHkids, which stands for Generation Healthy, has the mission to “create a generation of healthy kids through education, empowerment, improved nourishment and increased daily physical activity, thereby decreasing the incidence of childhood obesity and its detrimental health effects.”
Adam Castelli, genHkids Program Administrator, says that as the incidence of deadly infectious diseases have declined, chronic lifestyle diseases have become common, even in younger people. The goal of the genHkids program is to confront those diseases by educating children and adults.
Castelli explains, “We know that the food children eat and the amount of physical activity they do during the average day are all determined by adults. We try to educate adults on how they can make the children that they care for more likely to become healthy adults.”
Destination Dinner Table
The first specific targeted service program of genHkids was Destination Dinner Table. Program staff go into churches, schools and community centers to educate families.
Jen Dillman, genHkids Executive Director, says that Destination Dinner Table brings in the entire family to learn about nutrition, simple menus and how to stock their pantry. In addition, adults and children prepare a simple, yet nutritious, meal and everyone eats together. Cooking at home with fresh, unprocessed ingredients is the best way to ensure children are eating high quality, nutrient-dense calories.
“We know that most families aren’t cooking as much as they used to do,” explains Dillman. “When they go home after the program, they take a bag of groceries for what they just prepared so they can make it at home. We also send recipes for other easy meals and information on those lost cooking skills.”
The Destination Dinner Table program strives to instruct parents to prepare meals from whole foods – things that are fresh and raw. Cooking homemade meals from scratch helps with the risk for all of the lifestyle diseases and the more they prepare food at home, the better developed their cooking skills become.
Fresh food, in general, can be a lot more expensive, but the program teaches that certain fresh food ingredients, such as bulk purchases, less expensive meats, beans, grains, or dairy products can be used to construct delicious, nutritious meals that serve a family of four for under $12. Parents also learn how to find the deals on meats and fresh foods to help offset meal costs. According to Dillman, attendees learn skills to stretch the ingredients, such as buying a whole chicken and using it for two or three meals instead of buying smaller packages that may be more expensive. Parents work alongside one of the genHkids executive chefs to prepare a “kid approved” budget-friendly, from-scratch meal in less than 30 minutes.
Dillman is a single mother with two very active children. “I used to be the poster child of going through the drive-thru,” she says. “There are definitely types of fast food that are cheaper, but eventually those types of things come back to bite us. Fast food that has any nutritional quality is usually a lot more expensive than fresh. The idea is finding the balance where you can afford it, but it still has the nutrition you need.” Now, she takes each Sunday afternoon to do prep work for the week’s meals.
Eat Real at School
Currently, the genHkids chefs are working with school districts to help educate their staff to make nutritious lunches from scratch. Many schools don’t have the necessary equipment to do anything but heat and serve. The chefs will do a kitchen audit to see what equipment the schools have and what they need. They also do training of the dietary staff and work with them on recipes, menu planning and commodity purchasing. Federal monies allow for buying whole ingredients and chefs work with the purchaser to get commodities that don’t break the bank and will also qualify for federal monies.
GenHkids research has also shown that if the school day is structured in a way to give kids enough time to eat, it makes a difference. Recess before lunch helps calm the students down; they aren’t as likely to throw away their food so that they can get outside to recess. Not only does the activity help kid’s appetites, but genHkids research is showing a decline in waste numbers.
The program has proven that if kids are eating healthier foods and moving more, it will benefit all involved. GenHkids has a wide variety of programs for families, schools and the community. To learn more about all it has to offer, go to www.genHkids.org.