Cooking for Health

When one of his patients was diagnosed with diabetes, Dr. Will Kaufman, director of community health and wellness at First Choice Community Healthcare, recommended that the patient substantially change her diet toward plant-based nutrition. While Dr. Kaufman said he can “plant the seed for that idea in a fifteen-minute clinical encounter,” the healthy cooking classes offered by First Choice allow patients to experience the change firsthand.

In addition to taking oral medication, the patient “went through a journey of nutrition,” Dr. Kaufman said. She started attending the monthly cooking classes, and in the first three months of treatment, her A1C level — or measure of average blood sugar — dropped from 13 to below seven. This patient is one of many who have benefited from the program, which is funded through Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico’s (BCBSNM) Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® grant program.

“I’ve seen a dramatic change in their health trajectory,” Dr. Kaufman said of his patients who attend the classes. “I see their health improving.”

Since 2014, BCBSNM has funded programming at the non-profit, community-based health center system in New Mexico to support diabetes prevention and management and nutrition education. In 2017, BCBSNM awarded a $25,000 grant to First Choice’s South Valley Commons Wellness Initiatives, which offer monthly cooking classes and fresh, locally grown organic produce that many participants wouldn’t normally be able to access — all in an effort to help individuals and families learn how to better manage or prevent chronic health conditions. Class participants consist of community members and patients referred to the program by First Choice or other medical providers.

Blending nutrition education with practical cooking instruction, the program shows participants how food relates to health and how healthy eating habits can be incorporated into daily life. The bilingual English-Spanish classes, which are held at First Choice’s South Valley Health Commons in Albuquerque, begin with a talk on nutrition led by a medical provider. Chefs, caterers and others demonstrate recipes while samples of each prepared food are distributed, offering participants a full-sensory taste of nutrition.

Participant Silvia Vasquez explained that the classes are important to her because she is learning how nutrition can help with the prevention of diabetes and cancer, which runs in her family. Mark Blasetti, another participant, has made changes since he started attending the classes. He said that he’s eating more fresh vegetables and fruit, and he’s learning how to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other conditions. “I’ve learned so much about health and nutrition,” Blasetti said.

During one class, Dr. Kaufman spoke about plant-based protein and how plant-based diets can help with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Complementing the teaching, a recipe for “protein packed red chile” sauce, or “chile colorado con proteína,” was demonstrated. The recipe provided one example of how to make a delicious local staple even more nutritious by adding blended spinach or other high-protein leafy greens. Additional recipes prepared during the class included an avocado hummus, a Mexican chocolate protein shake and a black bean and mango salad.

As First Choice South Valley Commons Coordinator Juan Lopez explained, the classes teach “healthier ways to cook those traditional foods with just a little switch, adding more spices for flavor rather than salt and fats.”

Promoting a holistic approach to wellness, the initiative also incorporates physical activity. An hour before class, participants meet for a walking session around the neighborhood and nearby acequias, or irrigation canals. In-class breaks include movement such as dancing, breathing exercises and stretching.

The BCBSNM grant helps fund each class and subsidizes the cost of the fruits and vegetables each participant takes home. In addition, 40 low-income families from First Choice clinics receive weekly baskets of produce during a 20-week harvest period. To provide the locally grown food, First Choice partners with Agri-Cultura Network — a group of farms in Albuquerque’s South Valley — and La Cosecha CSA, a community-supported agriculture program. For the lesson on plant-based protein, participants received bags filled with red chiles, peaches, potatoes and squash.

As Dr. Kaufman has seen the health of participants improving, he’s also measured success in the level of attendance. The program draws an average of 30 to 40 people to each class every month, although it’s not uncommon to see turnout double in size. “We’ve had three classes this year with between 80 and 100 people,” Dr. Kaufman said. “It’s very exciting to me that people keep coming back to our classes, and I can see them making changes. Without Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico, we wouldn’t have these classes, and we’re incredibly grateful.”

Dr. Will Kaufman

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