Food as Medicine

March 18, 2014

There’s this other thing I’ve been working on since I left Delfina. It’s called Cooking Matters, and it’s a national program run through 18 Reasons. It’s a nutrition and cooking class that takes place once a week for six weeks, mostly run at medical centers and clinics (at least in the Bay Area). For the two classes a week where I’m volunteering as the chef (there’s also a nutritionist and a coordinator on the team), the program is being marketed as “Food as Medicine,” and doctors at these clinics are prescribing that their patients take this class to improve their health and combat some chronic illnesses.

It’s kind of the pedestrian manifestation of this thing that doctors at Harvard Medical School are doing at the Culinary Institute of America, which the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about. Sounds way more glamourous.

It’s been a great experience planning menus around the curriculum and getting to know all of the participants. The best thing is that they want to be there, they’re engaged.

photo 2

My Tuesday class is in Fruitvale, at the Native American Health Center. The participants have an interesting mix of backgrounds and ethnicities. There are the two Mexican women who claim that they never ever eat vegetables and don’t know where to begin. There’s an African American woman who takes care of all of her nieces and nephews, wears hats and sunglasses in every class, speaks like slowly and like a professor, and has mysteriously spent time in Syria, just because (“I’m a loner, she says, this class creates a social moment for me.” Break my heart). There’s the woman who’s son is a high school track star, who already knows almost everything we have to teach her and just wants to know more ways to cook vegetables, and the woman who watches Dr. Oz every day, but is looking to fill in the gaps. There’s the Native American woman in her young twenties who’s severely overweight who just doesn’t know what to do about it, and the woman who’s been on steroids since she was sixteen, her face puffy. Today she brought her husband and they want to learn together. And there’s the woman who said today, “I realized that I reach for sweets to eat when there’s not much sweetness going on in my life.”

All of them have high blood pressure (“It makes me dizzy,” they say, “and hot, and tired”), many have diabetes and hypertension. They want more energy, they want to learn how to make healthier food that’s within their budget. They want to know what healthy means, and how to read food labels and cereal boxes. The program isn’t perfect, but when each participant checks in at each class, it sounds like it’s making a difference. They’re making small changes, switching to brown rice, making the eggplant and soba dish that we made in class, talking to their friends about what they’re learning, working kale and other vegetables into their diets. They get weighed before each class, and their weights are going down.

The best thing about this class, is that they advocate small changes. Eat one piece of fruit a day, try one vegetable that you haven’t tried before. Make one meal without meat. Today’s class was about choosing healthy fats (last week was whole grains, and the week before was about what your plate should look like (the food pyramid is no more) and the week after is a grocery store tour and a lesson on budgeting. The last week is about how to keep the positive changes going.

It all sounds so cheesy, but it’s a mission that I really believe in. Sitting in a room full of people who don’t feel good, who are upset that they can’t chase after their grandchildren, who worry they’ll be too sick to take care of their parents, who are heavy consumers of healthcare, these kinds of classes are important. Teaching them basic nutrition and cooking, in an accessible way feels pretty meaningful.

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3 Responses to “Food as Medicine”

  1. Cheryl said

    Really important work !

  2. Barbara said

    What you’re doing does really matter! Good job!
    So glad to see that you’re writing again! xoxo

  3. Grandma said

    I would think it’s extremely interesting. It’s good to know that there is a place for these people who are interested in helping themselves and their families to go to where they can get the kind of help they need.

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