Sunday Suppers started with the mission of feeding the city's hungriest families. Eight years later, the Kensington community cooking program has become a way for neighbors to form bonds that extend past the kitchen, and that endure long after the program's weekly cooking classes end.
As participants meet weekly at the Memphis Street Academy Charter School to cook together and sit down for meals, previously isolated families get to know their neighbors. An alumni group was formed to help them stay in touch.
"We've had many people say it's like a second family," said director Linda Samost, who launched the program with the goal of helping households incorporate healthy and affordable cooking into mealtime routines.
As much as any other measure of success, that unexpected result inspired Samost to expand Sunday Suppers. This week, the nonprofit opened its second location in Germantown, operating out of the kitchen at the First Presbyterian church on Chelten Avenue.
Each fall and spring, Sunday Suppers convenes a new group of families who commit to attending a five-month program with short lessons on topics like nutrition, exercise, or grocery shopping, and, often, hands-on cooking sessions. The night ends with a three-course meal served with tablecloths and flowers in vases. Each family leaves with a bag of ingredients and a recipe. In recent years, the program, which relies on volunteer work and donations from foundations and individuals, has expanded to include providing kitchen equipment to families so they can cook at home.
Samost, a Mount Airy activist and former chef, acknowledged that it can take time to bring people in. Some families aren't accustomed to sitting at a table and sharing a meal. Others are hesitant to make the time commitment while juggling children and jobs. At the Kensington site, the aim is to graduate 40 people each session.
But those who make it all the way through the program later report eating more vegetables and sharing more meals together. They also consume fewer fried foods and sugary drinks, according to the group's 2017 report. Families also say they get along better and feel more supported by one another.
"Our goal is to remove as many of the barriers as possible to eating healthy food," Samost said. "And we know the good behaviors are continuing."
The new location was chosen through a partnership of the church, the Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry, and the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides most client referrals. At a recent open house, held with the goal of attracting new families, several women sat with their children, sharing cups of broccoli soup. At one table, a family of five passed around bread from a basket.
Tashawnda Taylor, 28, was eating with her 8-year-old daughter, Ta'mihiya, who recently announced she is a vegetarian.
"It's just like, you're eating animals, and I love animals," Ta'mihiya said. "Being a vegetarian is healthy for me."
Her mother turned up her hands, as though to say, she doesn't get it from me. "She doesn't even eat fish," she said. "At dinner, she'll just eat the sides. But if I can find stuff that is better for her to eat, and if it tastes good, that will be better for all of us."
Taylor also wants her daughter to be better equipped to make good choices about what to eat. She hoped to bring her boyfriend and two other children next time.
Priya Fielding-Singh, a doctoral student at Stanford, recently found that food deserts and access to junk food might not drive poor eating habits as much as is traditionally thought. The low-income parents she interviewed reported that chips and soda are often the only treats they could offer their kids.
It's a mind-set with which Samost is well acquainted. That's why it's important that the food cooked at Sunday Suppers is tasty as well as nutritious, like the baked ziti with vegetables that was served at the last open house.
"I had a mother tell me, 'He's my only child, I don't want to tell him he can't have this or that,' " she said. "And when people rely on benefits for much of their food, they don't want to waste the little money they have on food their family won't eat."
Samost's goal is to turn Sunday Suppers into a program that communities can run on their own. Her team is training participants to conduct peer-led sessions. This year, she hopes to complete a manual that would help communities replicate the program.