Each fall and spring, Sunday Suppers convenes a new cohort of families from the local community. These families come together each week for a family meal and commit to attending a five-month program, as it takes time and repetition to change behaviors and learn new skills.
With the family meal as the foundation of our program, our families learn together and build a platform for making behavioral changes in their homes.
Each evening begins with an interactive lesson which can include nutrition tips, shopping on limited budgets, hands-on cooking sessions, fun exercise routines, and more. Families then enjoy a healthy three-course dinner served in a restaurant-style atmosphere. All meals include fresh vegetables, lean proteins, and fruit. Meals and cooking lessons celebrate traditional and familiar foods, while introducing new items and healthier cooking techniques. We encourage all of our participants to try all foods at each meal.
Because sitting around the dinner table together can be a new experience for many of our families, we provide prompts, games, and conversation starters at each table to help ease any discomfort family members may initially feel. It isn’t long before families catch on to the enjoyment of eating together and sharing conversation.
Participants receive a to-go bag at the end of the evening with all of the ingredients and simple recipes to make that night’s dinner at home. Our Cook’s Cupboard program provides essential kitchen items to families who need them, to ensure that they can be successful in their own kitchens.
Because the family meal is the core of our program, our families are able to learn and provide support to one another to reach their goals and make lasting changes. Every cohort is different, but on average, our families have the following characteristics:
At the end our program, a graduation ceremony celebrates all that the families have learned and recognizes individuals for their contributions and successes. Our families come together for this joyous occasion and bring a favorite dish to share with the group. All graduates are invited to stay connected with Sunday Suppers through our Alumni and Peer Leadership programs.
Families in low-income neighborhoods often have limited access to fresh and affordable food and basic pantry items. Yet, fast food chains and corner markets that offer overly processed foods and sugary drinks are abundant in these neighborhoods. Lack of access to transportation, limited budgets, and inadequate government assistance programs make food purchasing decisions for these families even more complicated.
Almost all of our families (92%) receive supplemental benefits from the federal government (SNAP, WIC, TANF, SSI, SSID MA or Medicaid) and 75% of these families report that their benefits do not last through the end of each month.
Additionally, we believe in the power of the shared family meal, and its ability to transform the gap between food access, healthy eating, and behavior. Sunday Suppers acts as a unique intermediary that links the many efforts to enhance food access to positive dietary and behavioral change.
Limited access to healthy and affordable foods, paired with an abundance of cheap unhealthy food, fast food restaurants and corner stores, means low-income families tend to consume more processed food and sugar-laden drinks. It makes sense that they make (or buy) what they know, what is convenient, and what they know their family will eat.
For many, gone are the days of learning to cook from your mother and grandmother. Many families who come to us either don’t know how to cook or are cooking in less healthy ways. Self-confidence as well as lack of kitchen equipment are huge barriers. Sunday Suppers addresses this by offering hands-on cooking lessons at least twice a month, during which participants learn a range of skills and information.
For example, in a lesson we call “Eating the Rainbow” participants name fruits and vegetables of a variety of colors, learn their health benefits, try samples in each color category, and then make a dish incorporating as many colors as possible.
We also show families how to make familiar and loved foods in healthier ways. Who doesn’t like fried chicken? But maybe a healthier alternative can be substituted some of the time. Instead of deep frying with a heavy coating, our families learn to make baked “fried” chicken with cornflakes! Of course, it is important that the substitute is delicious and easy to prepare.
Staff, community volunteers, and trained facilitators lead interactive cooking demonstrations, using fresh food in simple, easy to follow recipes. A to-go bag following Sunday Suppers’ weekly family meal includes the ingredients and recipes from that evening’s instruction, encourages families to try new dishes and cooking techniques at home, reinforcing what they learned. We provide information and skills so that families can set individualized, attainable goals that will lead to lasting changes in their families’ eating habits.
Every spring, our families come together in our community garden and are intricately involved in all aspects of it: deciding what crops to grow, preparing raised beds, planting the vegetables and herbs, and tending to the garden. For many – especially the children – seeing vegetables grow and where they come from is a new and rewarding experience.
Participants’ ability to grow food they then pick and incorporate into their family meal is an empowering experience that opens up possibilities and a new appreciation for fresh food. And of course, it is the best way for families to learn how to include fresh and affordable food into their diet.
Victoria Lee is a Sunday Suppers graduate who volunteered to help oversee our community garden in spring 2016. The following year, she became a Peer Leader and is now responsible for overseeing all gardening projects and coordinating with other families to maintain the garden and to share the bounty.
It’s often overlooked, but families in need often do not have the necessary kitchen equipment to prepare and store food. Some may not have a working refrigerator, while others lack a table and chairs to share a family meal. For many, pots, pans, dishes, and other kitchen items are in short supply. It is one thing to learn a new recipe or cooking technique, but it is almost impossible to cook without basic utensils: a good knife and cutting board for dicing vegetables, a pot large enough to hold ingredients, a colander for draining noodles, and plates and silverware for setting the table, to name just a few.
Sunday Suppers has expanded its program to provide essential kitchen equipment to all of our families in need. As families begin our program, we assess their kitchens, find out exactly what they need, and provide the items that will help them reach their goals of better health and nutrition.
We are always looking for new or gently used items to help families store and cook healthy foods.
All Sunday Suppers graduates are automatically enrolled in our Alumni Program which provides ongoing connection and support between families and Sunday Suppers. Alumni gather monthly for a communal dinner where they can spend time together, share a meal, and participate in a cooking lesson, oftentimes facilitated by one of their peers.
Because we believe that graduates and community members are the heart and soul of Sunday Suppers, we created the Peer Leadership Program in the fall of 2016. This program provides an opportunity for alumni to build on their new skills and contribute back to the program. Alumni can apply for paid staff roles such as group facilitation, gardening, outreach, or meal preparation.
Ultimately, it is our dream to grow and build the program so that these Peer Leaders can manage and facilitate each of our program locations. We are committed to building skills and competency among community members so that they can become a new generation of program leaders and help serve others in their community. We recognize that these are the people who best know the needs and challenges of their neighborhoods.