The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

CookShop: Teaching Nutrition to New York Families

CookShop: Teaching Nutrition to New York Families

In the News

June 27, 2010

Food poverty, a characteristic of many low-income neighborhoods, is a result of a lack of access to nutritious food and the inability to afford healthy choices. In the U.S., 14.6% of households struggle to put food on their table every day. Now, cities are looking to combat food poverty with community-based programs that empower residents to learn about nutrition and take matters into their own hands.

The USDA-sponsored CookShop has served as the core nutrition program of the Food Bank For New York City since 1994. CookShop gives low-income New Yorkers of all ages cooking skills and nutrition information while fostering enthusiasm for fresh affordable fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. The program includes interactive workshops, lesson plans for school children aged 6 to 12, and parent and guardian programs to keep them in the loop about what their children are learning. Additionally, CookShop sponsors a high school-based teen program called EatWise, which trains teens to lead community and classroom workshops as peer educators.

The number of New Yorkers experiencing difficulty affording food has doubled since 2003, and in this economy, programs like CookShop have never been more important. CookShop currently engages more than 15,000 New Yorkers across all five boroughs, and promotes healthy, informed eating through social marketing campaigns targeted at over 100,000 youth.

Áine Duggan, VP of Research, Policy & Education for the Food Bank For New York City, says that the key to empowering kids to eat more fruits and vegetables is allowing them to experiment with whole foods in a safe, risk-free environment that’s fun, that they can enjoy, and that encourages them to repeat the behavior. 

“Most children in urban communities do not know where (or how) food is grown. Learning about where food comes from, learning the difference between whole food and processed food and it’s relationship to nutrition, and creating an understanding of different types of foods and the varied ways they can be processed and prepared, helps children make healthier choices,” Duggan says.

One of the reasons why CookShop focuses on whole and minimally processed plant based food, says Duggan, is that this is the category that most of the children are not exposed to often enough. The program provides an appropriate level of exposure so that the students can develop familiarity with these items, which in turn helps them to accept and genuinely desire the food. Also, the program works with food that is available in their neighborhoods, locally grown and affordable. The earlier the child is exposed to healthy food, Duggan says, the greater the chance they will incorporate healthy food into their eating habits for life.

“We create materials that the children can take home so that the families are familiar with the program and the tools the children are working with. Reinforcing the learning on the homefront increases the chance that families will repeat the behavior at home. Parents have told us about how exciting it is on a trip to the grocery store when their six or seven year old requests broccoli instead of chocolate chop cookies,” says Duggan.

Retailers, says Duggan, can help consumers emphasize what kids are learning in programs like these in their stores. Creating a produce department with colorful, enticing displays is a good way to spark a child’s interest. Having simple recipes available in produce and whole food aisles is also important. The other piece that helps? Making sure your store accepts the EBT cards for families receiving SNAP benefits. This increases the likelihood that a family on these benefits will shop at your store and purchase nutritious food.

“Seeing the program in action really makes you understand how much the children love having nutrition education available for them. On the day of the week that the teachers do the CookShop lesson, they tell us they usually have one hundred percent attendance. And that really speaks for itself,” she adds. 

Students in the CookShop program can learn about and test the food at their own pace, which gives them a sense of control. And when it is their own idea to consume the healthier food, says Duggan, they feel good about their choice. From dissecting the plant to tasting, preparing and cooking it, participants get to know food in an intimate, fun way and enjoy the overall experience.