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Cooking Matters: When Food Is Medicine

By Adeline Browne, AmeriCorps Cooking Matters Coordinator

On a Tuesday night in November, the café at Maine Medical Center transformed. A radio, interrupted occasionally by the sound of a blender, played pop-tunes, and the room whirred with activity. Vegetables of purples, greens, and yellows were strewn across the tables. Participants laughed as they learned the art of chopping and sautéing. Physicians donned in white coats frequented the hospital’s café at peak hours, but on this Tuesday night it was a chef’s double breasted white coat commanding authority.

The hospital’s café transformed into a Cooking Matters Maine classroom. Cooking Matters Maine, which is run in partnership with Good Shepherd Food Bank, offers classes in all 16 counties in Maine. The program provides low-income people with hands-on cooking and nutrition classes led by volunteer professional chefs and nutritionists. I work as one of three Cooking Matters AmeriCorps members, and on that Tuesday night in November I helped turn a hospital café into a culinary classroom.

Is a hospital an unlikely setting for a Cooking Matters course? Perhaps. But the mounting evidence for the connection between food and health is unassailable. The Center for Disease Control estimates that one in three children born after the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime . Obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition—often side effects of hunger and poverty—are also expensive diseases. In 2008, the medical cost of obesity and its associated health problems were estimated to be $147 billion . The scope and cost of the problem warrants our full attention.

While the connection between nutrition and health may seem obvious, the healthcare industry inexplicably continues to lag behind. Why do soda machines continue to line the halls of hospitals? Fortunately, some physicians are pioneering cooking and nutrition education for their patients. Dr. Carrie Gordon of the Countdown to a Healthy ME program—a program for children with unhealthy body mass indexes (BMIs)—offers Cooking Matters classes for her patients and their families. The hospital hosts Cooking Matters for Families in its café, and the hospital chefs volunteer their time to teach people how to cook healthy affordable meals.

As an aspiring physician, I joined the Cooking Matters team because I believe that the food we eat in America is making our country sick. By helping people understand the connection between food and health in an educational setting absent of pressure and judgment, I hope I can inspire people to lead healthier lives. At one cooking class at the hospital, I was standing across from one of the 10 years-old participants when he looked up from chopping a bell pepper, turned to me, and said, “You know, usually when I come to the hospital it’s for something bad. But this is fun!” Sometimes, medicine doesn’t look like a stethoscope and an exam room. Sometimes, it looks like a chef’s knife and an assortment of beautiful vegetables.