After an hour and a half of flurried activity in the kitchen, a dozen women at the Coronado YMCA in central Richmond took a seat at a long wooden table. The places were set, the salads—mixed greens garnished with fresh berries and pistachios—were on the table, but the chicken wasn’t done.
Robert Edwards, the executive chef at Ethan’s Catering who organized the day’s cooking frenzy, cracked a sly smile and shouted “You’ve got ten minutes!” But the chicken would take at least another 20 minutes to finish baking. “I guess we’ll just eat it however it comes out, then,” Edwards’ student Juanita Hughes joked. The chef smiled. He’d actually planned an extra half-hour he hadn’t told the group about, he admitted to them later.
The meal marked the end of 12 weeks of classes called A Taste of Health that focused on exercise and nutrition. The group met every Saturday for the last few months—skipping a few here and there for holidays—to exercise, cook and learn together. The program was funded by a grant from the non-profit arm of Kaiser Permanente called East Bay Community Benefit, which paid for a chef, a fitness coach, speakers, food, and the space at the YMCA. “The idea was to give people the tools to make better, healthier choices about eating and exercise,” said Tracy Smith, a program manager with Kaiser who helped organize the program.
For their last meal together, the women—the one man who took part in the program did not attend the final event—had to cook the meal without the chef’s assistance. Edwards bought the ingredients, but didn’t tell them what they were going to cook—their challenge was to figure out a healthy meal based on the ingredients provided. “We’re doing it Iron Chef-style today,” he said. He gave them the list of ingredients and started the clock.
The idea of a cooking and nutrition class was hatched three years ago, when Edwards met Patricia Lewis, a Richmond resident, at a fundraiser, for which Edwards had cooked a vegan meal. Lewis was impressed, and she invited him to cook for her church, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond. Instead of the standard high-fat breakfast fare that the church often provided for its congregation, Edwards served the church group yogurt, fruit, bran and granola.
Edwards said people were skeptical about the food he served them. “The comment that threw me was ‘That’s white people food,'” Edwards recalled. “I’m like, what’s that supposed to mean? It tastes good and it’s nutritious for you.”
After that breakfast, the church asked Edwards to teach a few lessons on how to cook more nutritious foods. “The whole idea was to get the community around eating better, because the congregation is getting older, with more dietary issues, more health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes,” Lewis said. “So we wanted to focus on better eating habits.”
When those lessons proved fruitful, Lewis and Edwards decided to scale it up and invite members of other churches to join in. They worked out a twelve-week program with Sonjay Odds-Eggleton, a dancer and fitness coach, which combined exercise, cooking lessons and educational speakers. Lewis approached Kaiser Permanente’s East Bay Community Benefit program, which funds community programs and does outreach with church communities in Richmond to promote health, and the organization put forward $10,000 to pay for Edwards’ and Odds-Eggleton’s expertise, food for the group, a nurse to take vital statistics at the beginning and end of the program, and weekly workshop leaders. They advertised on the radio, in newspapers and church bulletins and got together a core group of about 25 participants.
The idea of working to bring healthier cooking practices to African-American church communities is important, Odds-Eggleton said, because the church cooks many meals for the congregation, and those meals usually involve fried foods and fattening preparation methods. “I think we can reach more people from churches that we can through other places,” she said.
The weekly Saturday program started with exercise led by Odds-Eggleton, who said she took a very basic approach to leading the group. “I just try to get them to go back to the state of mind of when they were kids, to stop thinking about exercise and just think about movement,” she said. They played games, tossed balls, and learned basic techniques to loosen up joints and muscles tightened by age and disuse. She said she wanted the participants to teach them how to loosen up their bodies so they could do more rigorous exercise without injury.
When the exercise portion of each class was over, Edwards took over with a cooking demonstration and a meal. “I know that they go home and try these recipes,” he said. “That’s a win.”
Edwards pushed the participants to buy organic foods and high-quality produce, which he admits does add to one’s grocery bill. “But at the end of the day, what’s worth more to you: Your health and your life or your grocery bill?” he said. By eating smaller portions, cutting down on unhealthy foods and doing even a moderate amount of exercise, Edwards said one could make up the difference in long-term healthcare costs. “In the long run you’ll be spending the same amount or less on food that you spend on meds every month,” he said.
Each week’s meeting also featured speakers who focused on making healthier decisions about food, how to read nutrition labels, the basics of nutrition and preparing balanced meals.
On Saturday, by the time the women sat down to their plates of baked chicken, red cabbage and brown rice—the last meal they would share together as part of the program—they were talking about how to take the A Taste of Health program forward by creating a second level with more intensive exercise for them to continue or start another round of the program that new participants could take part in.
And Kaiser is interested in keeping it going too, according to Smith, who joined them for lunch. “It was definitely successful and it’s something we’re looking at extending,” she said.
But even if the program doesn’t formally start up again, the women were already tossing around the idea of continuing to exercise together. “Who’s got the biggest living room?” asked Juanita Hughes.