Eight people stand behind a table with orange United Way cloth

Kristen Parker (third from left), Samantha Monks (fourth from left), New York State Senator James Tedisco (fifth from left), and Erin Callahan (third from right), with fellow United Way Summer Meals Collaborative staff and volunteers.

The United Way of the Greater Capital Region’s Summer Meals Collaborative is an affiliation of 16 organizations in New York’s Capital Region that provide healthy meals and activities for youth and teens when school is out (the collaborative has served more than 1.9 million meals since 2013!)  

Russell Sage College Associate Professor of Nutrition Sonya Hauser, Ph.D., has been an advisor to the Collaborative since its inception and is now leading a three-year research project to help the Collaborative ensure it is meeting the kids’ needs. In 2023, three Russell Sage Nutrition graduate students along with students from Siena College and UAlbany joined her as summer associates with support from the AmeriCorps VISTA program.  

The Russell Sage team visited dozens of meal sites across six counties and analyzed the nutritional content of the food served; interviewed hundreds of staff, parents, and kids about foods the kids like and don’t like, and what would make them try new foods; and studied how it all measured up to nutrition guidelines.

This was the second year of Hauser’s project, intended to help the collaborative assess strengths and opportunities and implement sustainable improvements.

“Something that I feel passionate about is that every person deserves access to enough healthy foods,” said Nutrition and Dietetics master’s student Erin Callahan, one of the AmeriCorps summer associates from Sage. 

It meant a lot to Callahan to meet so many kids who already benefit from the Summer Meals Collaborative and to play a role in helping the collaborative build capacity to serve even more children. 

“I learned a lot about research methods that will be useful for my research-related courses and my thesis courses,” Callahan added.”This AmeriCorps VISTA opportunity will also show potential employers that I have community nutrition experience.”

Samantha Monks, who just completed her Nutrition master’s and Dietetic Internship at Sage and became a Registered Dietitian over the summer, was a summer associate on the project for the second year in a row. She was excited to see the collaborative successfully implement some suggestions from her first year.

Last summer, kids told Monks they would eat more vegetables — and try new ones — if dips were available. She shared that feedback with the collaborative, which provided ranch dip this year. 

“The kids loved it!” Monks said. The kids did eat more vegetables, and there was less food waste. 

When the summer associate position ended, Monks joined the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York as its Food as Medicine Manager and Sage’s Nutrition department as its Dietetic Internship coordinator.  

“My experience really set me up for higher-level positions,” she said, “in the sense of being able to go out and build community relationships, being able to lead a team, being able to conduct research.” 

Nutrition & Dietetics master’s student and summer associate Kristen Parker collected data and also ran nutrition education sessions at one of the sites. 

One of her lessons included a taste test with less-common fruits and vegetables. 

Kiwi won the taste test, and one of the kids asked for even more “new” fruits and vegetables next year. “That was very, very satisfying,” said Parker. 

Parker wants to work in government, creating nutrition policy. She said seeing how federal and state nutrition policy gets implemented at a local level was invaluable — then she listed all the other skills she strengthened this summer, including data collection, teaching, and teamwork.

“All of these are great things to put on your resume,” she said. 

But what was even better: “It really felt like we made a difference.”

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