My family emigrated from Laos in 1981 and made The Bronx their new home. A big part of my identity is shaped by my experiences in the boogie down, from food and culture to people and politics. There are many misconceptions about my borough, but there are also a lot of hard truths, including being ranked the “least healthy” county in New York.
In my neighborhood, there weren’t a lot of healthy food options. Both my parents worked. My mom always prepared dinner for us, but my two older siblings and I were on our own for breakfast and lunch. Cereal and toast were the two things I could make myself. For lunch, I relied on free or reduced school lunches, like 88% of Bronx students do today.
After school I would go to the local bodega armed with $1, walk out with a bag of potato chips, a “quarter water” and a few sour straws in a brown paper bag. This was a typical snack for me and my latchkey friends, who spent most of our time hanging out in parks or walking around the neighborhood before dinner. Could I have snacked on an apple instead? Perhaps. But what did I know about buying an apple, or any fruit for that matter? Even as an adult I have to Google “how to choose a watermelon.” Every time.
When I thought about food, I didn’t think about nutrition. Food was just about staving off hunger in the fastest and cheapest way possible. If I ever prepared a meal for myself, it was something highly processed, like a box of mac and cheese. My parents stocked up on them when they were on sale, and all I needed to add was butter and milk.
I’d like to think that if I’d had a better understanding of the connection between food and health, I would have made better choices. If I’d had the know-how to make a mac and cheese using fresh ingredients, I might have eaten that more than the boxed powdered cheese option. Looking back, the importance of eating fruits and vegetables was not instilled in me, beyond the typical parental message, “Eat your veggies if you want to be big and strong.” Perhaps if I’d known more about nutrition and diet-related diseases, I could have encouraged healthier habits for my family, which has a history of high blood pressure.
That is the power of cooking for me — having the knowledge and tools to take control of my body and health. That’s why The Sylvia Center’s mission is so personal. Around 25% of TSC’s programs in NYC are held in The Bronx, bringing essential food and culinary lessons that will encourage young people, like me at that age, to make better food choices and lead healthier lives. With November underway and Thanksgiving just around the corner, I am thankful to be part of The Sylvia Center community and helping to promote healthy eating in my community.
Until next month, be powerful in the kitchen!
Pontip Rasavong, Development Director