bok choy cutting board

Connecting local food to our regional healthcare providers is the goal for Groundwork’s Farms, Food & Health program

May 13, 2021 |

From the earliest days of our Farms, Food & Health program—with its emphasis on culinary medicine methods—we have worked closely with physicians and other medical professionals to spread the word about the importance of cooking and eating nutritionally rich, locally grown foods. The great news is many medical providers are excited and ready to embrace this delicious and preventive approach to health for their patients, and even for their own families. 

We call it a “food first approach”—using nutrient-dense, locally grown foods as a way to keep people healthy and to prevent and manage diabetes, heart disease, digestive diseases, and others. Good nutrition is also essential for keeping immune systems strong and protective during times of uncertainty and stress. 

Back in 2019, we hosted a conference titled “Farms, Food & Health, with Culinary Medicine Training,” which drew hundreds of people from throughout Michigan, the Midwest and beyond. The Culinary Medicine Training portion offered hands-on learning for physicians and other medical professionals, teaching culinary skills, updates on hot topics in nutrition science—including nutrition’s influence on mental health—and more. All instruction was based on the premise that it’s good medicine to connect local farmers, chefs and other key food system professionals to our medical professionals.

At the conference, national and regional presenters explored the nutritional value of shopping at farmers markets, “Prescriptions for Produce” programs, initiatives that bring nutrient-dense, locally grown food to food pantries, and the value of cooking plant-based meals using locally grown food. We gave first-hand examples of ways to connect both providers and their patients to our region’s bounty of local foods for the sake of wellness.  

Healthcare professionals say the culinary medicine training is making a difference. They are sharing the information with colleagues and family and are strengthening bonds made with people in the food world—farmers, distributors, and chefs. They also report they are changing the way they shop, cook, and eat, and are passing the instruction to their patients. Some healthcare professionals have come to believe so strongly in the potential of the “food first approach” that they would like teach patients in a true teaching kitchen—with lots of space, cooking stations and plenty of equipment—to make the learning even more effective and fun.

In-person culinary medicine training became especially challenging in 2020, as pandemic restrictions reshaped how we gathered. But to keep moving forward with our culinary medicine work, we collaborated closely with public health experts and Munson Family Practice to safely host an innovative patient training named “Dinner With Your Doctor.” 

With Covid safety measures in place—separate work stations, no sharing of ingredients or equipment, masks and distancing, and so on—Munson Family Practice invited a half-dozen patients to the office for six once-a-week cooking classes. Instructors showed students easy ways to use whole foods for cooking, and offered food prep tips and knife skills to illustrate how much easier cooking can be when you have a little bit of kitchen know-how.

After the first class, one participant shared that she “never would have thought to use cinnamon on carrots.” But the carrots ended up being her favorite recipe over the six-week program.

Two participants (a patient of MFP and her roommate) worked together to create meal planning goals for breakfast and for eating more fruits, stating, “We are going to figure out how we can make breakfast together on work days.” 

“My daughter loved the homemade salad dressing. She ate the whole salad and she rarely eats salads,” a mom said.

A husband and wife team used our program as a date night and reported back that they shared the meals with their teenage daughter.  She was receptive to the plant-forward meals and homemade salad dressings. “My daughter loved the homemade salad dressing. She ate the whole salad and she rarely eats salads,” the mom said. 

Each week participants cooked one or two recipes, and the team of dietitian instructors from Michigan State University Extension, Munson Healthcare, and Table Health  supplemented the menu with local salad greens, a protein, or a more complex grain or starch dish. 

We offered weekly knife skill-building opportunities and also sent students home each week with a new kitchen tool or utensil. Each participant received over $200 worth of new kitchen equipment, which we believe was a tremendous incentive for our participants to keep attending class each week. 

It takes a team of dedicated and engaged partners to make all this possible, including our sponsors like Oleson’s Market, and local kitchen supply store Peppercorns, in Traverse City, and with grant funding support from the Michigan Health Endowment and the Allen Foundation, and all the tremendous support of you, our members.  

From the seed to the dinner plate, we are a region becoming known for leading and showcasing local food as medicine approaches that are doable, one tasty meal at a time.

 In March, we shifted our focus to the medical residents of Munson Family Practice and offered a learning opportunity about the Dinner with Doctor program, which included a virtual cooking lesson.  Medical residents are physicians who have finished medical school and are now receiving training in a specialized area, such as family medicine.

We will continue to work with residents, promoting healthy eating habits with local foods for themselves and their patients at future Farms, Food & Health conferences and culinary medicine skills training.

By sharing key program results and logistics we can build an understanding of the program and opportunities for the residents to reinforce the learning and nutrition messages that happened with the patients. Offering the virtual hands-on cooking for the residents is also fun, which is a rare happening in the life of a busy new doctor. For the featured food, we highlighted one of the top rated recipes from the class: Geek-inspired meatballs made with local ground turkey, fresh cucumber yogurt tzatziki sauce, whole wheat pita bread, and mixed greens with a simple 5-ingredient salad dressing using dried spices and Fusitini’s vinegar and oil.

We will continue to work with residents, promoting healthy eating habits with local foods for themselves and their patients at future Farms, Food & Health conferences and culinary medicine skills training. Food is a common language that connects us all. Even during a pandemic, masks and social distancing did not stop our efforts. In fact, Dinner with Your Doctor was a welcome respite for residents, staff and students, a chance to connect, have a laugh and an honest wellness experience. (I usually sign notes with “happy eating” when I promote food as medicine and sing praises of food as joyful and nourishing for body and soul.)

More details about the Dinner with Your Doctor Recipes can be found here. Our next efforts focus on the needs of heart failure patients and their providers at Traverse Heart and Vascular Outpatient Clinics. Stay tuned for more details to come from Farms, Food & Health and Culinary Medicine programs.

Happy Eating, Paula