At a time when Los Angeles has the largest chronically homeless population in the country, a USC alumnus has partnered with the USC Caruso Catholic center to combat the issue through an unconventional angle — cooking.
Nourished is a service organization that connects USC students with residents of supportive housing in the Los Angeles area. During weekly visits, volunteers and residents share the experience of cooking healthy recipes and eating together.
For volunteers and residents alike, what starts as an opportunity to give and receive food becomes a chance to build new relationships and discover new perspectives.
According to Jack Lahey, co-founder and project manager of Nourished and a recent masters in social work graduate from the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, the idea for the program arose from a brainstorming discussion during which he and his adviser Benjamin Henwood, a professor at the School of Social Work, evaluated the best way to tackle the issue of homelessness.
Lahey said that they analyzed other non-profit organizations as case studies, and discovered that while some organizations work upstream to address the institutional forces and social constructions that give rise to inequalities, others try to aid as many individual people as possible.
“What’s good about Nourished is we’re trying to meet in the middle,” Lahey said. “We’re meeting an immediate need, but we’re also addressing long-term concerns about health access, nutrition, preventative health, and alienation and loneliness for somebody who was on the street and now is housed.”
Lahey said that he and Henwood took an analytical and research-driven approach to planning the Nourished program. For example, their emphasis on healthy eating arose from data they found on the rates of chronic disease among homeless people in the United States.
“The health burden on this population is the highest health burden in terms of chronic diseases that any population sees in our country,” Lahey said. “Rates of diabetes [are] around 40 percent, high blood pressure [is] over 50 percent and life expectancy in terms of real years lost is around 10 years.”
Given that many other potential problems accompany living without a stable home, eating healthy food regularly is one step toward correcting eating habits that could evolve into more serious health concerns later on.
However, Lahey said that the program is about more than just providing people with healthy food each week, as it also aims to educate participants on how to prepare meals based on instructions from the weekly recipes.
Since the recipes are designed to be budget-friendly, diabetic-friendly and low-sodium, residents can take their new knowledge of cooking to their daily lives. The result is an actual change in behavior where residents become more independent and understanding of healthy eating choices.
After preparing the food each night, the volunteers and residents eat together. They chat, share stories and discuss current events.
In the end, there is an exchange of life experiences that broadens perspectives and nurtures understanding.
For Lahey, the work that Nourished is doing has academic and professional value to students because of the way that it humanizes and connects individual people to the larger issue of homelessness in Los Angeles.
“These experiences put a face to social issues you might write about or academically understand but don’t really have a real emotional, visceral connection to,” Lahey said.