Saturday, July 13, 2013

Summer Nights Program Providing Food, Food Education to Many Local Residents

By Christina Georgiou

That the Summer Nights program in the West Ward's Centennial Park is fun and provides activities and a place to go for city kids in an effort to keep them off the streets and out of trouble is no secret. But the program also provides vital resources for many in the city whose income is less than sufficient to provide them with enough food to eat.

The Easton Weed and Seed Summer Nights program feeds
about 100 city children and 50 adults in need
four nights a week.

According to the lastest available statistics, food insecurity affected 34,670 people in Northampton County, and 42 percent of the county population qualifies for SNAP. Often, even with the assistance of food stamps, children and families are in danger of going hungry because they don't have enough.

The Summer Nights program, run by Easton Weed and Seed, is feeding an average of 100 children and 50 adults dinner per day, four days a week, said director Laura Accetta.

From Monday to Thursday, every week until August 24, anyone who shows up at the park between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. is fed.

The meals are light and simple, often featuring sandwiches. Water, instead of iced tea or lemonade, is being offered for drinking this year, in an effort to cut down on sugar and be healthier.

Children's meals, provided by Sodexo through the Easton Area School District's summer food service program, are balanced nutritionally in accordance with school lunch menu regulations. Yesterday, it consisted of a small sandwich wrap, a side, milk, and an apple. 

For adults, meals are provided and made by the Easton Area Community Center, and the menu varies based on what's available through the Second Harvest Food Bank and a few other local companies that donate their leftover-but-still-good items. Thursday, the adult meal included a salami bagel sandwich and a bag of chips.

And, by the end of the meal, all of the food was gone. A few leftovers from the adult meals were immediately taken when offered around, with some clearly stashing them away for later or the next day. There were no leftovers of children's meals.

"Generally, we run out of food," Accetta said.

Some of the problem is clearly due to families not having enough money or benefits to purchase all the food they need, particularly when it comes to fresh, healthy items. But better education, cooking skills, and making wise food choices can help make people's limited budgets go further, both when it comes to having enough to eat and their overall health.

Meagan Grega, a physician and one of the
founders of the Kellyn Foundation, talks
the importance of healthy eating, while
offering cooking instruction and

For the third summer in a row, the Bethlehem-based Kellyn Foundation, is running their "Healthy Lifestyles" program every Thursday evening during Summer Nights.

Kellyn Founders Meagan Grega and Eric Ruth combine live food prep demonstrations, nutritional advice, and healthy living tips into an enjoyable hands-on presentation that engages both kids and their parents who attend Summer Nights.

Basic cooking skills and building confidence in the kitchen, along with introducing fresh, healthy foods participants may not be very familiar with, is a big part of the equation.

A young Summer Nights program participant gives sauteed
onions a stir.
"Sometimes you might feel like you don't know how to cook. But if you start experimenting..." Grega told the crowd of about 50 who gathered to see how to make "Summer Rice and Veggie Soup" this past Thursday evening.

Children are particularly encouraged by the team to participate in the food preparation demos, including how to measure ingredients and chopping up vegetables.

"The first thing you need are knife skills," Grega said, as one young volunteer was guided through the process by Ruth.

While some might discourage children from handling the sharp blades, Grega and Ruth emphasized safety while teaching the essential kitchen skills.

Eric Ruth, one of the Kellyn Foundation's
founders, shows a young boy how to properly
chop vegetables at during a cooking
demonstration at the Summer Nights program
Thursday evening.
"You need to be mindful and be sure you're paying attention," Grega told assembled kids.

One by one, each ingredient--all fresh and in season vegetables and herbs, were named and their healthy attributes described by Grega, who first asked the audience to guess what each was and why it was good.

As ingredients went into the pans and pots one by one, the colorful medley of mixed summer produce was shown off.

"The goal is to eat a rainbow of colors," Grega explained. "You want to eat all the different colors...because you want to have all the different types of vitamins that come with all the types of colors.

"If you do this, then you won't need a multivitamin because you'll be getting (vitamins) in your food," she added.

Tips about how to reduce preparation time, like cooking the rice for the soup while cutting up the vegetables, are also part of the enjoyable education.

To help participants be able to recreate meal items demonstrated, audience members are given $10 vouchers good for purchases at the Easton Farmers' Market, along with the recipe printed in both English and Spanish.

"Make sure you get a recipe at the end so you can make this at home," Grega tells the audience.

Those present also have the bonus of getting a taste of the spoils. That it's both good and that many are still hungry is obvious, as a premade batch of the summer soup is quickly consumed, as is the just-made batch, despite warnings that "it might still be a little crunchy."

A bowl of summer veggie and rice soup, using fresh, in
season vegetables from the Easton Farmers' Market. Those
who attend the city's Summer Nights program on Thursdays
not only get to watch and participate in a live cooking
demonstration and taste the results, but also receive market
vouchers to help them purchase the needed ingredients to
try the recipes at home.
But not only is the healthy food being consumed at Summer Nights, it's clear that audience members are taking skills home with them too. Several volunteered that they'd made a quinoa vegetable stir-fry, the last featured demo dish, at home and they'll be doing it again.

"We want to show people that you can eat healthy, delicious food on a budget," Grega, who is also a physician, said.

Grega creates the mostly vegetable-based recipes from scratch, based around what's immediately available at the Easton Farmers' Market and what's in season.

"I made this recipe up on Monday," she said. "Next week will have to do with peaches. We're figuring out exactly what we're going to do."

The Kellyn Foundation's Meagan Grega, who lives in Palmer
Township, talks about the nutritional value of purple carrots
Thursday evening in the West Ward's Centennial Park.
While the program isn't vegetarian or specifically promoting a vegetarian lifestyle, nearly all the presentations this summer will be based around fruits and vegetables. The location in the park makes proper handling of meat-based meals more of a challenge, plus having a high proportion of fruits, vegetables and grains in the diet is healthier, and most people already know how to cook meat, Grega said.

Those watching the demonstrations have been taking advantage of the farmers' market vouchers and presumably incorporating what they're learning from the "Healthy Lifestyles" program, Ruth said.

Nineteen vouchers were used at the twice-weekly market on Easton's Centre Square last week. The market is reimbursed in full by Summer Nights, who received a grant from the Walmart charity foundation to underwrite the voucher costs.

"I'm hoping to see more every week," Ruth said. "I want to see 50 families a week take advantage of the voucher program."

Kellyn's efforts at educating kids and their parents doesn't start in the kitchen though. After the demonstration, Grega and Ruth, led by several children, moved over to a corner of Centennial Park, where a small vegetable garden has been planted.

A young boy holds up a just-picked carrot. The vegetable was grown in
the small plot in Centennial Park, where Easton's Summer Nights program is
held Monday through Thursday, from 4 to 8 p.m.
While the gardening project is small and somewhat undeveloped at this point, the pair said they hope to involve some volunteers to tend it next year and produce some ingredients that can be used in their cooking demonstrations in the future.

The idea is to add one more layer of empowerment and understanding of what good, healthy food is and where it comes from, Ruth said.

"If people grow their own food, they 'get it.' If they don't, they don't," Ruth said.

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