As a formally trained chef, registered dietitian, and DrPH degree holder with a focus in behavioral sciences, I get to combine my unique skills and experience to teach interprofessional culinary medicine classes at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health, where we dissect nutrition into consumable, delicious bites. We don’t eat calories after all — we eat food. So it’s imperative that our nutrition education mirror what’s practical while also providing diverse and delicious flavors that nourish the body.
In our teaching kitchen, students learn about diet, health, and the social determinants of health. Through case studies, we challenge students to think holistically, actively listening and asking questions to understand the different barriers and facilitators to healthy eating. Students also have the opportunity to participate in culinary medicine classes in our surrounding communities through partnerships with clinics and food pantries.
Across public health, the pandemic exacerbated longstanding challenges. Increasing food insecurity and chronic illness related to nutrition underscored the need for services like our culinary medicine classes. But pivoting to a virtual platform for a hands-on culinary medicine class isn’t a piece of cake — you can’t exactly send food samples via the chat function on Zoom. Even though lots of us watch cooking shows or the NBA Finals, we can’t simply replicate the food being prepared or shoot a basketball. In other words, interactive, skills-based classes are difficult to duplicate in a virtual environment.
But we were up to the challenge. Usually, when patients pick up food through our produce prescription program, they also join our culinary medicine class. We found ways to keep the class interactive and engaging despite the limitations of the pandemic. We created simple cooking technique videos to supplement our virtual group nutrition sessions while also reducing the time burden for participants.
These videos focus on techniques that can be adapted to different food items and flavor profiles. And we continue to learn, working with the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative to create best practices around technology and production so our virtual culinary medicine classes and others can continue to provide their communities with the nutrition they need and deserve.
While improving the technological accessibility of our virtual cooking classes, we had to make sure we were still making the classes accessible in terms of the food we use and attitudes we have toward food. Nutrition is often perceived as negative or even punishment, but we believe beautiful, healthy food shouldn’t be exclusive or monolithic. In our classes, we embrace open discussion about food preferences, family and cultural considerations, and how participants can implement nutrition changes in their own homes.
This is important to me because the U.S. has a long history of single-lens nutrition recommendations that reinforce racist ideas of health, create a vacuum mostly void of any culturally inclusive and representative foods, and perpetuate negative stereotypes about “good” and “bad” food.
Every culture in the world has healthy food components, so a seemingly innocent recommendation to follow a “Mediterranean diet” can ostracize and stigmatize a large portion of our population. Does this mean I can’t eat any of the foods from my culture? What does a Mediterranean diet signal to my Honduran or southern Alabama family?
These “white-washed” food ideals often lead us to blame patients for “non-compliance” rather than point the finger at our tone-deaf recommendations. While the change is slow, dietitians and groups such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are now promoting diverse voices and pushing for the need to check our racist nutrition research and policies. That said, we have a long way to go to make sure nutrition recommendations include everyone’s culture and cuisine.
I wish I could say that everything went perfectly, but anyone reading this knows nothing is perfect during a pandemic. In some ways, pivoting to virtual classes underscored how much work is needed to address healthy eating disparities in the U.S.
Despite the hurdles, I can say my DrPH training has prepared me to face challenges head-on, with creativity and flexibility. To other DrPH students and professionals, don’t be afraid to use your unique background, perspective, and skills to help solve the myriad of public health problems. Our diversity of experiences creates beauty and breakthrough for the communities we serve.
John “Wesley” McWhorter, DrPH, MS, RDN, LD, CSCS is assistant professor in health promotion and behavioral sciences and director of culinary nutrition for the Nourish Program at the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health (SPH). He is appointed as a faculty member at McGovern Medical School, serves as a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and is an advisory council member for the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative. A professional chef, Wesley focuses on interprofessional nutrition education through hands-on culinary medicine courses. He’s also a certified strength and conditioning specialist with experience in fitness and corporate wellness. His research interests include closing the divide between culinary literacy and nutrition education and policy. Wesley graduated from Kansas State University, earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch and a doctorate in health promotion and behavioral science from UTHealth SPH. (Houston, TX)
The mission of the DrPH Coalition is to create a community of DrPH students and alumni who leverage their expertise, diversity, and creativity for the advancement of the public’s health. The DrPH Coalition leverages the leadership and expertise of Doctors of Public Health in public health policy development and action, education and career development, and the promotion of evidence-based public health policies with a focus on factors and issues relevant to elevating trained public health leaders in public health debates, policy, and education. For more information, visit www.drphcoalition.org.