South Portland school program teaches girls to work together, eat well

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A dozen teenage girls from South Portland High School are taking part in a unique program that bridges cultural divides and brings local and immigrant students together to focus on healthy eating.

The group in South Portland is the first teen program in the U.S. for nonprofit Slim Peace, which began in Israel in 2007. It was originally created to connect Middle Eastern Jewish, Muslim and Arab women, who were separated by political and cultural barriers.

“The purpose of Slim Peace is to bring together women and girls who never would have met otherwise,” founder Yael Luttwak said this week from her office in Washington, D.C.

Although Slim Peace has launched other adult programs in the U.S., beginning in Boston in January 2013 and, since then, in Portland, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the teen initiative in South Portland is the first of its kind in the nation. It was made possible by a grant from The People of Color Fund of the Maine Community Foundation.

Five mainstream students and seven English Language Learner students – hailing from South Portland and the countries of Somalia, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Iraq – are taking part in the program.  

“We are thrilled and honored and just so delighted,” Luttwak said of the South Portland initiative. “It’s a real credit to the school and the community.”

Allison Brown, an ELL teacher at the high school, said that while half of her students’ classes are mainstream after their first year, the students tend to associate mainly with each other and their ELL teachers. They stay where they feel most comfortable, Brown said. 

“It’s a good effort to push them out into the larger community,” Brown said. 

Each week, a registered dietitian and licensed counselor will facilitate the group’s sessions, which will be incorporated into the students’ fall semester schedules.

Unlike in other classes, however, everything will be interactive, project coordinator Sara Schwartz said.  A hip-hop instructor will be visiting the group bi-weekly, to promote physical activity in a fun manner, and the students will talk about and prepare healthy recipes together during sessions with titles like “Carbs, Fiber and Culture” and “Sharing, Fats and the SNACK Model.”

The goal, Schwartz explained, is to create a dialog. During preparation of a particular recipe, for example, one participant might discuss how the food is cooked in her culture or family, and others might then contribute their experiences.

“It can go in any direction and we encourage that,” Schwartz said, “because that’s what brings people together.”

And, according to Luttwak, participants really are brought together. 

“It’s amazing what happens in nine weeks,” she said, adding that a real sense of intimacy and trust grows within the group. 

More than 500 women have participated in Slim Peace worldwide, and 27 women recently took part in one in Portland. Following the South Portland High School sessions, a University of Southern Maine program is expected to start in January 2015. Another adult program is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2015.

Schwartz and Brown said they hope the students will enjoy the fall sessions and spread the word, so that another program might be held at the school in the future. 

“We’re hoping what happens here will serve as a model for the rest of Portland and the U.S.,” Schwartz said.

Lily O’Gara can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @lilyog28