Healthy Memphis Initiative is using culinary medicine to help Memphians live better and longer

Anyone who’s visited the Crosstown Concourse has likely seen the Church Health Nutrition Hub. It’s the ultra-modern teaching kitchen that sits behind glass walls in the building’s West Atrium.

Its mission is to teach people how to heal and maintain health through nutrition. The kitchen is part of a larger strategy to address Memphis’ most pervasive and chronic health challenges.

Healthy Memphis Initiative brings together local stakeholders from major medical institutions to individual community members. They’re pooling expertise and resources to examine chronic challenges from multiple perspectives and create more effective, holistic strategies for change. 

“A lot of times here in Memphis and Shelby County, it can be very siloed. Everyone’s in their own corner doing their own thing,” said Fedoria Rugless. “We have a much greater impact if we come together and address some of these common issues and common goals within the region.”

Rugless leads the Healthy Memphis Initiative. She’s also director of research for Church Health and a research assistant professor in the University of Memphis' School of Health Studies.

HMI’s partners share a few broad goals like reducing chronic disease, addressing healthcare disparities, and improving social determinants of health.

Rugless said no conversion around health in Memphis can ignore disparities and the barriers they create. Things like racial inequities, poverty, trauma, andchronically inadequate healthcare and transportation create barriers to preventative care and treatments.

A collaborative approach is necessary to consider all of the variables that affect people's ability to take basic steps towards better health like reducing stress, staying active, and eating well.

“All of those components make up the whole person,” said Rugless.

Food as Medicine

Teaching people how to eat for health is known as culinary medicine.

At the Nutrition Hub, culinary medicine means lectures, cooking classes, and diet planning. They offer classes for the general public and can tailor those offerings for specific groups like diabetics, athletes, and kids.

They also train healthcare educators, students, and practitioners how to counsel patients on diet as medicine and host classes for adults with intellectual and developmental delays as part of a larger initiative to help them get and keep employment.
The Church Health Nutrition Hub has classes for community members, people with diabetes, athletes, and more. (Church Health)
Sharon Moore is director of nutrition services for Church Health. She said 2,884 people participate in the hub’s various programming in 2019.

Graduates of their programs are more likely to read food labels, eat more fruits and vegetables, and take more time to plan their meals and cook at home. One participant lost 15 pounds over six weeks of classes and reversed their hypertension. Another was able to stop taking medication for diabetes. A student with intellectual delays took what he learned and got a job at Jason’s Deli.

A lot of the programs’ successes can be boiled down to exposure. Participants can try new food. They learn that healthy meals can be delicious and easy to prepare or that cooking isn’t as intimidating as they thought.

“Some people don’t know how to cook bok choy and don’t even know what it is,” said Rugless.

One of the hub’s most interesting offerings is sport-specific culinary medicine.

“They had, for instance, the volleyball team come through and taught them to prepare foods that are best for their bodies and their performance,” said Rugless.

Teamwork makes the dream work

HMI’s partners meet quarterly with task forces and individual projects that meet more often.

“The goal is to get everyone, the key players and stakeholders, and bring them all together in the same room at the same time and same place [so] we’re all on the same page,” said Rugless.

HMI started as a collaboration between the University of Memphis and Church Health.

It now includes Rhodes College, Christian Brothers University, University of Tennessee Health
Sciences Center, Alliance Community Health, Baptist Memorial Health Care and Methodist Le Bonheur Health Care. Area nonprofits, community organizations and individual advocates, and groups and businesses in Crosstown Concourse are also members.

“The projects can have a broad scope and they’re not limited, which kind of keeps it interesting and fun as well,” said Rugless. “Everybody has a different perspective that can definitely make an impact in the project and its trajectory.”

The Nutrition Hub’s primary partners are the University of Memphis and Church Health. Church Health handles most of the operations, the university handles most of the research. UTHSC has also been a partner on some programming.

Data-Driven and Future-Focused

Projects between HMI’s partners involve a cycle of think-build-test-learn.

Each entity brings resources to see a problem, generate an idea, build a project or pilot, implement it, and study the results to refine the idea and try again.

The Nutrition Hub, for example, is a physical space where collaborators can pilot a program, observe its outcomes, and hone it for greater impact.

For the community cooking classes, the partners use surveys, one-on-one conversations, and other tools to track participants' progress. They examine nutritional competencies and habits before and after they complete a program.

“The primary focus is to define evidence-based healthful eating and define its impact,” said Rugless.

The collaborators hope to scale up locally with more interdisciplinary projects and stronger partnerships then nationally with replication in other communities.

There’s a new collaboration forming as a spinoff of the culinary medicine program. The focus is food insecurity and accessibility with new partners including the Mid-South Food Bank, Memphis Tilth, South Memphis Farmers Market, and Big Green.

The Nutrition Hub is also preparing to launch a new cooking program in the fall for families, children, and adults in several formats.

Support for this article was provided by New Memphis. New Memphis’ mission is to forge a more prosperous and vital city by developing, activating, and retaining talent and working to inspire and develop engaged, civically responsible leaders. Their work highlights the challenges and opportunities facing Memphis and provides a platform for civic education and engagement.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.