Columbus Cooking Class Promotes Healthy Eating on a Budget

By BRITTANY MCGEE, Ledger-Enquirer

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — MercyMed and The Food Mill have partnered with Open Hand Atlanta for a 6-week cooking class offered to patients to help participants learn ways to shop for and cook healthy foods on a budget.

The patients in the class are enrolled in MercyMed’s Fruit and Vegetable Rx program or a medically tailored meal program. The long-term goal of the program is to help patients have more confidence in their cooking abilities, decrease barriers and help students prepare healthier, more affordable meals.

“I think a lot of people believe that to eat well means that you have to have a lot of money, and that’s not true,” said Jamie Benefield, a registered dietitian nutritionist at MercyMed.

She hopes that the students in the class learn how to eat well and improve their health, and also the health of their families, Benefield said.

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Around a dozen students sat at gray tables arranged a U-shape in MercyMed’s Wellness Center on March 14, listening to Benefield teaching them about the types of fats and how to reduce unhealthy fats from their diets.

Participants were engaged in the lecture, asking questions and explaining facts they’d learned from previous classes. At one point, Benefield pulled out a blue dry erase marker and asked students to look up dietary facts about burgers and sandwiches from fast food restaurants.

Using the information students found online, they created a “Blubber Burger.” A hamburger bun with shortening in the middle is used to visually represent the amount of fat that is in popular menu items from the restaurants.

As the Blubber Burger was passed around the class, students reacted with varying degrees of shock or disgust. One participant likened the experience to seeing what smoking does to the lungs.

Shirley and Hal Campbell, a couple that joined the cooking class after participating in MercyMed’s 5 Weeks of Fitness, said learning about nutritional science has made them more aware of the prevalence of unhealthy food at restaurants and grocery stores.

This exercise is not meant to highlight that there are “good foods or bad foods”, Benefield said, but rather to show the amount of fat in certain items. Her goal during the nutritional science portion of the class is to help participants think about the types of foods they are eating.

The Blubber Burger was eye-opening, Hal said.

“How many people are eating those right now,” Shirley said. “Or what did I used to eat back when I was running out and grabbing lunch real quick every day.”

GROCERY SHOPPING AND LIFESTYLE CHANGES

Two of the topics the class will discuss are how to look at the cost per unit when grocery shopping and menu planning, Tiffany Dunn, culinary-nutrition program director at The Food Mill, said. This will help people who feel they don’t have time to cook, and also help to decrease food waste.

“I want people to know that you don’t have to make fancy recipes and spend $30 on broccoli broth,” Dunn said. “I want them to know that they can go and buy cabbage right now this week for under 50 cents a pound.”

The students made chicken burgers with a kale salad during the March 14 class. The chicken burgers are lower in saturated fat, Benefield said, as well as providing a source of protein.

“A lot of people might have a turkey burger or even a beef burger,” Dunn said. “I thought it was important because chicken could be less expensive for them to try.”

The ground chicken was $2 cheaper than the ground turkey when she shopped for the class, Benefield said. Pairing the chicken burger with a kale salad was also important to Dunn because a lot of people don’t think about having a burger with vegetables, she said.

Elois Terry joined the class to learn how to cook tasty foods with less salt to help take control of her health, she said. Some of her favorite recipes that she’s learned during the class include a ratatouille and sautéing vegetables.

“Now, that was a revelation for me,” she said. “That you could build from the flavor. Start with the onions, and then you can build on your flavors.”

The class is teaching her how to eat at home, Terry said, adding that she’s learning how to be more self-sufficient by growing vegetables and cooking them. The skills being taught are helping her cut down on her grocery bill, she said, which has been increasing due to inflation.

Participants in the class get to take home a produce box every week to practice what they’ve learned. The produce comes fresh from the MercyMed farm in Bibb City and other local partners.

One student, who is almost blind, hadn’t been doing any food preparation at home before participating in this class, Dunn and Benefield said.

But she was inspired to go to the library and have them print recipes for her in large font. The participant brought the recipes to Benefield who helped her tailor the meals to meet her needs.

“I think that is huge,” Dunn said. “That’s a huge thing to make someone say, ‘Wow. If I eat this, I can control my sugar.”

The class is a safe space for participants, Dunn and Benefield said, in addition to being a place where they can socialize with others who may have similar health concerns.

Jaime learned that one of the participants called their doctor to tell him how much the class has helped him meet his health goals, and how he’s incorporated more fruits and vegetables into his diet.

“He said they’re my friends,” Benefield said the doctor told her in an email.

The class has a 100% retention rate, she said, which is not typical for classes like this, which usually have retention rates between 75% and 80%.

There are a couple of participants who didn’t feel supported at home, Dunn said, but they’ve made connections with their peers in the class

“One woman says she’s got ‘my partner,’” she said. “’My partner’s here and she encourages me.’ And I said, ‘you know what, you encourage her.’”

As some of the students massaged kale for the salad, the class’ camaraderie was on full display when the group began a chant that references a decorative sign Benefield keeps in her office.

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