Cooking classes help Detroit youth knock out bad eating habits

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Youth at Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym are learning to do more than just put up their dukes. Through a program called The Learning Kitchen, offered by GenesisHOPE Community Development Corporation, the gym's third through eighth graders are top contenders when it comes to eating more fruits and vegetables.

Over the six-week course, GenesisHOPE staff share a nutrition lesson, an interactive cook-as-you-go demonstration, and a food tasting every week with a group of kids gathered at the Downtown Boxing Gym's kitchen. The Learning Kitchen is just one of multiple GenesisHOPE programs made possible through Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of SNAP. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

The partnership between GenesisHOPE and the Downtown Boxing Gym was a natural one. The gym serves more than 150 youth ages 8 to 18 from across Metro Detroit with free programs focused on academics, career readiness, social-emotional skills, and health and wellness. GenesisHOPE works to improve quality of life for people living and working in Detroit’s Islandview and Greater Villages neighborhoods through programming that addresses community health, community development, and youth development.

“We’re working towards health equity,” says Courtney Morrow, GenesisHOPE deputy director. "Our overarching goals and vision are healthy people and healthy places. Physical health depends on what you’re eating, your activities. SNAP-Ed includes that.”

Micah Wilson, GenesisHOPE's program coordinator of youth development, leads The Learning Kitchen sessions. Because of COVID-19, Wilson has been teaching the classes remotely. However, she takes a hands-on approach when shopping for ingredients and then delivering them to the club before the class. After an opening nutrition lesson, two Boxing Gym staff members guide the students as they join in, cook along, and take turns reading recipe instructions.

Participants cook food during a session of The Learning Kitchen.
“After everyone is done cooking, we plate what we made and taste together. I am so proud that they know that we wait for each other before we taste too,” Wilson says. “After the tasting, they give input. I ask them, ‘What would you do differently if you could cook this at home?’ Then we begin cleaning up. I let them know that you clean as you go and that an organized kitchen is a safe kitchen.”
Students take The Learning Kitchen instruction remotely.
Using the Learning Kitchen curriculum developed by Hunger Free Vermont, Wilson shares important nutrition lessons each week through easy, delicious recipes that emphasize affordable, healthy ingredients. Her biggest joy comes when her students share that their mom, dad, or grandma has let them cook the recipe for the whole family at home.

“Most of my students were unable to cook at home," Wilson says. "From the time they walk, they are told to stay away from the kitchen. After a few classes they come back and say, ‘Oh, I cooked breakfast over the weekend,’ or, ‘Mom let me cook with her for dinner.’ Now their families feel confident that they can do this. The students are teaching the parents.”

“The kids are able to influence decisions being made at home,” agrees Jeanine Hatcher, CEO of GenesisHOPE. “Behavior change takes time. What we have found through our SNAP-Ed programming is just how people experience multiple barriers to being able to eat healthy, and our goal is to lessen those.”

Participants cook food during a session of The Learning Kitchen.
In the Detroit neighborhoods where GenesisHOPE works, people face high poverty rates and all of the associated challenges. This creates a vicious cycle where chronic health conditions can prevent people from finding employment, create more expenses, and seriously impact quality of life.  

In addition to The Learning Kitchen activities with youth at the Downtown Boxing Gym, GenesisHOPE offers The Learning Kitchen program for adults. Along with a cooking demo, they learn about portion control, ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables, and how to cook with less fat and salt.

“Our SNAP-Ed programming really helps people make healthier food choices on a limited budget,” Hatcher says. “We share with people how to leverage not only their SNAP benefits but other programs like Double Up Food Bucks, Senior Project Fresh, and things of that nature, as well as provide overall healthy recipes that stretch the budget.”

Hatcher’s own health story inspires her work at GenesisHOPE. In 2015, she was diagnosed with lupus.

“When I eat healthier and consume primarily fruits and vegetables, I feel wonderful," she says. "That’s what I like best about my SNAP-Ed work: educating the young and old about the correlation of food and health. I particularly like that we work with young people so we can help them to avoid unhealthy habits that are hard to break.”

Through its SNAP-Ed work, GenesisHOPE  also engages residents so they can have an active role in advocating for policy change. Hatcher admits that GenesisHOPE staff have not seen the kinds of change they would like to see in their community — yet. She hopes that SNAP-Ed funded programs will help catalyze that change, in concert with an upcoming policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) forum GenesisHOPE is coordinating with like-minded organizations.

“All of the organizations have some connection to food and health. We have been working on an individual level. I think the PSE will take it to the community,” Hatcher says. “I am excited about what’s going to come from that.”

Hatcher, Morrow, and Wilson see the SNAP-Ed youth cooking classes as a way to not only help youth grow up to be thriving adults, but to also help shape Detroit’s future leaders and inspire the next generation to become community leaders and change-makers.

“Our entire mission is to promote healthy living and work towards health equity for Detroit residents, specifically, Islandview residents. It starts with food — by helping people, many of whom use SNAP benefits, to learn how to shop and eat healthy on a budget, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, and eat healthy food more frequently,” Morrow says.

“I’m a firm believer in looking to the future,” Wilson adds. “Our children are our future leaders. We have to educate our children about eating healthy and being active as they grow, so they know how to care for themselves when they become adults. It isn’t something that just happens - being healthy is a learned process.”
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