Cooking as a Weapon Against Disease: A Story from A Sylvia Center Supporter

By April 12, 2018May 3rd, 2024Archive

Because of our supporters, more youth and teens in New York are cooking together and building healthy habits to last a lifetime.  Today, we share Laura Kern Hennessey’s story:


What inspired you to run on behalf of The Sylvia Center?

My reasons for running the half were very personal. I’ve had celiac disease for 10 years which has led me to learn and think a lot about about food and food systems. In recovering after the diagnosis I had to learn a lot about what everything was made out of, and the more I learned the more I was surprised by what is actually in our packaged foods. Furthermore, there wasn’t a lot of packaged food for me to eat, so I learned how to cook almost anything and everything, and I totally fell in love with the act of taking things made by the earth and turning them into nourishment. For me, cooking is a spiritual act, an act of independence, of resistance and self empowerment. It’s my number one weapon against disease and number one ally in creating more health for myself and others.  

I found The Sylvia Center after having several experiences with volunteer programs around New York City. I’m a designer and an artist and I was initially giving my time toward causes that would teach children in the community to paint or do art. I started to notice that the kids were being fed terrible food at these programs and as a result were totally acting out and unable to focus. Some wouldn’t even eat what they were being served because they knew that white bread with a frozen burger patty and ketchup was a poor excuse for food. I really wanted to get involved in something that would teach children in the community about food, because it had been such an empowering thing for me.

The running piece is different but related. Exactly two years ago today I found out that on top of celiac disease, I had type 1 diabetes, a different but related autoimmune illness which made it hard for me to do certain vigorous activities while maintaining a normal blood sugar. So of course I decided to become a runner. I never imagined I would be running from Lefferts Gardens to Harlem!


Why do you think health is an important topic to discuss with children?

I don’t just think health is an important topic to discuss with children, I think it’s an unavoidable one. The rates of chronic illness are on the rise, and the toughest part is that so much of it is preventable. The more that we can teach children about how to live healthfully the more they will be empowered to take care of themselves and their families throughout their lives, and learning about real whole foods is a huge piece of that conversation.


What did your friends say when you told them you were running a half marathon?

When I told my friends I was running a half marathon, everyone was super supportive. Many knew how big of a deal it was because they knew how much I’ve struggled a lot over the past year to be able to do that kind of vigorous physical activity. My husband is an avid runner and recruited me to run the Ragnar relay last year, and I had a lot of trouble finishing my portions of the race without having my blood sugars drop. It was really satisfying to be able to complete this half marathon and not feel like my diabetes stopped me from doing it. In fact, I finished really strong! When I looked at my splits, my last leg was the second fastest which felt like a huge victory.


 How long did you train?

I only found out about the race in late December. My husband and I got married last year, and delayed our honeymoon to be able to take time off over the holidays. I had entered into a lottery and saw the charge come out of my account the week before we left on the trip. I didn’t really start training until the middle of January, there was definitely snow on the ground for a few of my runs. It wasn’t until the first week of February that I was able to break through 4 miles. In 6 weeks I went from 4 miles to 13!


Did you have a pre-workout or post-workout go-to meal?

I tried not to eat too much before working out, it made it easier for me to manage my blood sugars. My favorite pre-run snack is an apple with peanut butter or almond butter, something simple with a nice balance of protein, carbs and healthy fats. After my runs I would eat a lot of plant based protein, bowls with lots of quinoa, beans, veggies, and avocado dressing. My friend who is a triathlete is a plant based eater and I took a cue from him on this!


What was the first thing you craved after the run? 

After the run I definitely was craving pizza! The NYRR club told us to plan a destination to meet our friends and family because it got really crowded around Columbus Circle so my family found a restaurant with gluten free pizzas to meet on the upper west side. Surprisingly I didn’t have as much of an appetite as I thought I would. I totally thought I would finish a whole one myself but I ended up taking a lot of it home!


What is your favorite dish to make at home for your family?

My favorite thing to cook at home for my family is Thai vegetable curry. Sometimes I will put chicken, but it always has coconut milk, lots of thai chillis, lemongrass, ginger and lots of great veggies – it’s a great way to use up any that you have hanging out in the fridge. You can eat it with noodles or with rice. I’ve never heard a complaint at the table with that one. 


Thank you for sharing, Laura! To support our programs that enable young people to nourish themselves through cooking and eating healthy food, click here