Since 1987, the Church Health Center has offered a holistic approach to keeping Memphians healthy regardless of their income. Food is an important variable in this equation. At the Church Health Center's Wellness Center (formerly Hope and Healing) off of Union, registered dietitian Jessica Leu and nutrition education coordinator Carolyn Nichols head up the team that makes healthy eating accessible through wellness counseling and cooking demonstrations.
As part of their commitment to sharing healthy food with the community, the Wellness Center is an active participant in National Nutrition Month and will host a special nutrition event this Saturday, March 27th, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The goal is to promote fresh produce as part of a healthy diet.
"We want to expand the opportunity for the community to experience and use fresh food and vegetables," Leu says.
In this spirit, master gardeners will be giving gardening lessons, covering outdoors gardening techniques and how to grow a windowsill garden. Small herb gardens are currently sitting in the center's windows, and Leu expects the cooking demonstrations will involve the produce from these windowsill planters.
Local chefs, including Josh Belenchia of Interim and Joe Cartwright from Spindini, have volunteered to lead some of the cooking classes for the event. Dietitians will be available to answer questions, Whole Foods will have a table set up with information about their products, and local vendors will bring in fresh produce for a small-scale farmers market.
The celebration of National Nutrition Month is just one highlight of the nutrition program at the Church Health Center. Throughout the year, Nichols gives cooking classes, often a handful a day in the Wellness Center's state-of-the-art kitchen, with titles like "Nutrients We Need" and "Diabetic Desserts."
When I sat in on a class this past St. Patrick's Day, we made a healthy version of the Irish favorite shepherd's pie, with ground turkey instead of ground beef and pureed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. Each of the student cooking stations was responsible for a different part of the meal — from cooking meat and making gravy to chopping carrots and pureeing cauliflower. It was a 9 a.m. weekday class, and all 12 students were between the ages of 40 and 75 and mostly retired. According to Nichols, the 20- to 30-year-old crowd is more common in the after-work classes at 5:30 p.m., and even younger students come for classes such as "Alphabet Cooking" for teens and "Snack Attack" for kids ages 6 to 11. On Thursdays, classes are held at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 5:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public.
The recipes, created by the Church Health Center, call for fresh or frozen vegetables, avoiding canned foods whenever possible. The recipes are typically healthy twists on familiar favorites.
"I try to cook things that people will actually cook at home," Nichols says. "I can do things with tofu and edamame, but I know they might not make that at home. So I'll do, say, baked chicken instead of fried chicken."
In addition to suggesting healthy substitutes in recipes, Nichols also emphasizes paying close attention to portion sizes. "The [portion size] demonstrations are totally an eye-opener for most people," she says. But does it stick?
"I'd say about half of the students go home and make the recipes for their family," Nichols says.
At the very least, students are exposed to the nutrition information passed along in each cooking session. While our shepherd's pie was baking, we learned about all the benefits of eating cauliflower and the best way to cook it without losing nutrients (steaming). Nichols brought our pie out of the oven 10 minutes later, and though we all agreed the recipe could use a little more salt, it was a very hearty dish.