Food that’s Real for the Family Meal

Posted: January 6, 2017

by Sunny Rehler, Coordinator of Religious Education, State College Friends Meeting

In April and May of this year I attended an 8-week “mini-course” on intergenerational programming at Penn State University. The course is tied to the Intergenerational Leadership Institute (ILI), a new training program, co-sponsored by the Penn State Intergenerational Program, Penn State Center for Healthy Aging, and RSVP – Centre County. I was one of 10 community minded individuals, all 55+ and with interests in developing new or expanded intergenerational programs.

During the first weeks of this seminar we looked at many examples of successful intergenerational programs, both here in the U.S. and abroad. We focused on the benefits of such programs as well as some of the factors that contribute to program success. One program which really caught my attention was a Penn State Extension program named “FRIDGE,” which stands for “Food-Related Intergenerational Discussion Group Experiences.” This educational program brings groups of families to discuss ways in which family members could work together to eat more healthfully.  [The FRIDGE curriculum is posted ONLINE.]

An essential part of the ILI seminar was for participants to develop and perhaps even implement ideas for intergenerational pilot programs in Centre County, PA. This was the stimulus for some of us to begin developing a program for the State College Friends, which we are calling: “Food that’s Real for the Family Meal.” In order to explain the meaning of “Real Food,” as I am using the term, it’s helpful to consider the historical context of foods at the family meal, as it was for most of our grandparents and ancestors before the wide scale industrialization of the food industry.

Historically family and communal meals have been one of the keys to building strong families, strong communities and a sense of culturally identity.  At the family meals of our grandparents, there was often an abundance of local, fresh produce, sometimes from their own gardens or from neighboring farms. Family meals had the effect of integrating people within the natural world and giving them a sense of gratitude for the abundance of nature. In addition, as families gathered at the end of the day to prepare, cook and share a meal, kids had a chance to share and hear about local news, daily joys, as well as frustrations among (hopefully) supportive family members who could offer empathy and emotional support, if needed. 

Various developments in our society have led to a lack of awareness about the relationships between food and the natural world, as well as about the “culture of food.” At the workplace or even in a park, I often observe people eating alone and frequently even while using a lap-top or other mobile device between bites. These developments have occurred throughout the “civilized” nations in all parts of the world.

To protest these developments there is now a growing international movement called the “Slow Food Movement.” Its advocates encourage the use of foods which are wholesome, fresh, local and which sustain the environment, thereby nourishing a healthy lifestyle for both humans and animals. Advocates also encourage the use of “fair foods,” which honor the dignity of labor from field to fork and which are accessible for everyone to enjoy. In solidarity with the Slow Food Movement, we use the term “Real Food” to refer to foods promoted by this movement.

For those interested in learning more about the slow food movement, I recommend the following books: Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto” (2008) and Nina Planck’s “Real Food – What to Eat and Why” (2006). Pollan’s first rule for a developing a healthy diet is: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food!”

Fortunately, I was not the only member of the Intergenerational Leadership Institute course who is inspired by the slow foods movement. Susan Haagen (another ILI participant) and I teamed up to plan and implement the “Food that’s Real for the Family Meal” project, which consists of a series of family gatherings at State College Friends Meeting hall, with an emphasis on learning, preparing and enjoying healthy foods together.

Thus far, we have planned two events, “Plant-Based Meals That Satisfy” (Oct 1, 2016) and “Easy and Delicious Holiday Recipes” (Dec. 3, 2016). To facilitate discussion among the participants, each of these gatherings includes:   cooking demonstrations, hands-on (cooking) practice, a communal luncheon, and facilitated discussion about various issues related to “Real Food.”

We view the program as a way to restore some of the best aspects of the “culture of food”, as described above, and to introduce people to some ways to prepare some delicious, but also healthy recipes.  Additional objectives (which we consider to be equally important) are to foster family communication and to strengthen sense of community.