SMART University in East Harlem

February 21, 2018


The class begins with a rapid roll call. Each woman tells the group what she cooked during the week. “Salmon with broccoli and beans,” says one woman. “Oh, I made broccoli and salmon too,” says another. “I made the potatoes and kale.” There are a lot of repeats — many of the women made the same meal. For the past three weeks, the women have been focusing on diabetes prevention and management. Each woman has prepared at least one recipe from the list of approved meals in the SMART (Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research & Treatment) University manual, an organization based in the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center.

Susan Rodriguez founded SMART University 20 years ago after she was diagnosed with HIV. “I wanted to create a space for women to come together and support one another and learn important things about their bodies and how to take care of themselves,” she said. Since then, the small gathering of East Harlem women has blossomed from a weekly social gathering to a nonprofit organization offering free classes on topics ranging from legal rights and art to computers and cooking. The cooking class, SMART Body, which teaches an array of healthy tips and cooking skills stands out. With 29 attendees, the class is slightly over capacity.

For the past three weeks, the women have crammed themselves, basic cooking equipment and groceries into a large conference room on the second floor of the East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center on 115th Street and Lexington Avenue. The dynamic new center features community organizations, health providers, the Health Department and other City agencies, working together to improve the health of neighborhood residents. Recently, the Fund for Public Health in New York City (FPHNYC) and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began building an on-site, 1,700-square-foot teaching kitchen and dining room to be completed in 2019.

During this week’s lesson on diabetes management, Tawnya Manion, the culinary director and chef nutritionist at SMART University, moved from seat to seat to help each woman calculate their recommended daily calorie intake, so they can better plan their meals. “I think many women are surprised to learn all the things that go into living a healthy life, but they are excited to know more,” she said. “Each week I can see what changes they are making based on what they are cooking at home.”

That’s something Debbie Sanchez can attest to. As an ambassador with SMART Body, she leads food prep and readies small bags of groceries for each woman in the class so they can duplicate the day’s lesson at home. She began SMART University’s cooking class two years ago and has lost more than 150 pounds. “I have learned a lot about what to eat and how to make vegetables in creative ways,” she said. “My husband and son don’t even know I sneak zucchini and kale into their meals.”

Because the class is over capacity, Sanchez and another prep cook, Annie Reyes, work in a small kitchen on the first floor until much of the main food prep is done. Upstairs, women wearing hair nets, aprons and gloves work at a conference table that has been divided into prep stations. Some women cut avocados. Others cut tomatoes. Today’s menu: vegan tortilla soup with a bean-and-lettuce salad.

When the kitchen opens, it will benefit both the class and the community. The East Harlem Neighborhood Action Center will gain a large-scale facility featuring cooking and nutrition classes for children and adults; job training and skills building for careers in the food industry; and meetings and educational events for residents and local organizations to form partnerships, exchange ideas and encourage one another to lead healthier lives.

The Teaching Kitchen seeks support for additional equipment and to support new programming. See here for more information.