In a bare classroom at the Coronado YMCA in Richmond, a small group of women—and one man—dance around in a misshapen circle as they imitate activities from running to praying. The instructor, Sonjay Odds-Eggleton, sings out, “My name is Sonjay and I like to squat,” as she squats down and pops back up twice. The other people in the circle copy her movements and improvised lyrics. They move a bit slower, but after a couple times around they nearly have it down.
“Her name is Sonjay and she likes to squat. Her name is Vera and she likes to cook,” they sing in unison, making wide pot-stirring motions with their arms.
The participants range in age from their late 20s to early 70s, but they have one thing in common: They’re all giving up half of their Saturdays for the next eight weeks to participate in “A Taste of Health,” a free eight-week workshop run by the Richmond Faith Initiative designed to help them make major lifestyle changes.
On the first day of class students are weighed in, body measurements are taken and a volunteer nurse does a baseline health screening to check blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. Mildred Crear, a retired nurse, volunteers with the Bay Area Black Nurses Association and has screened participants since the workshops started three years ago. She said the most concerning issue she sees time and time again is high cholesterol. But it can also be the most rewarding health metric, she said, because she often sees it drop when people stick with the program. “We’re able to get them to lower their cholesterol,” Crear said.
The program is the brainchild of Robert Edwards, Patricia Lewis and Sonjay Odds-Eggleton. Edwards is a professional culinary instructor who runs Berkeley-based Ethan’s Catering, named after his son. He graduated from the California Culinary Academy eight years ago and integrates a variety of international and cultural traditions into his cooking. “I can cook anything,” Edwards said.
Lewis is the group’s organizer and administrator. She is the Health Ministry leader at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist church in Richmond, and spearheaded the effort to form the workshop. Odds-Eggleton is a fitness instructor, who with her husband owns the Advanced Sports Training gym in Berkeley.
Edwards and Lewis met four years ago at a fundraising event he catered. Lewis was inspired by the vegetarian spread at the event and asked him to come to her church to do a demo on healthy cooking. Edwards prepared a vegan menu. Chuckling as he recalled the event, he said “lukewarm” is the nicest way to describe how the food was received by the congregation. “Some people didn’t even try it,” he said.
Undeterred, Lewis and Edwards continued talking about how to bring healthy cooking to the Richmond community and brought Odds-Eggleton on board to address fitness. In 2011 the group received a grant from Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Program through the Richmond Faith Initiative and launched their first workshop.
This year’s workshop runs from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm each Saturday, and students enroll in advance for the entire eight weeks. Each Saturday is structured similarly. Odds-Eggleton runs the group until 10 am, playing games with them and getting everyone moving. “People come in and they don’t want to exercise,” Odds-Eggleton said, “so we play games. It’s similar to being a kid.”
After they’re warmed up, the students head to the back of the room where Edwards talks to them about nutrition and different ways to prepare their favorite meals. Usually during the last hour or two they cook (and eat) a meal together, applying what they’ve learned. On Saturday, Edwards introduced the class to zesty spice mixes to try as an alternative to iodized salt, and passed a mix around for them to smell and take home.
“I spend one day teaching raw cooking,” Edwards said to the class. “Raw?” a few people muttered. Smiling, Edwards went on to explain that raw cooking probably isn’t that foreign, “like ceviche,” he said. “The fish is cooked in lime.” Most of the women smiled and nodded, but a few appeared less than convinced.
“You do have to be careful where you get your ceviche,” Edwards said, but he added he’d teach them how to make it safely.
Because it’s mostly women who come to the class—women who say they are responsible for buying the groceries and preparing meals at home—Edwards is able to affect a whole family’s eating habits by recommending that they cut out salt, switch from using grease to olive oil and incorporate more green leafy vegetables into their diets. “I remind them they have the power to make the changes,” he said. Chuckling, he added that starvation is a motivator—even the pickiest kid will eventually have to eat what’s available.
To ensure that his students are implementing the lessons, Edwards has them bring in their grocery receipts each week. His eyes sparkle a little bit as he explains why: “Receipts don’t lie.”
The group’s first workshop in 2011 was fully enrolled with 25 students, but numbers have dwindled—only ten showed up for Saturday’s workshop. Lewis said they’ve tried everything they can think of to get the word out—partnering with churches, putting up flyers around town, placing announcements in newspapers, online and on the radio. “We don’t know what else we can do,” Lewis said.
Lewis also worries that the Kaiser grant could run out and not be renewed. There is enough money left on the grant to fund this year’s workshops through June, and for a few mini-workshops as requested by congregations and other groups, Lewis said. “We’re going to look for other options because we are not sure how long they’ll fund it,” she said.
All three of the instructors point to their returning students as the best examples of the program’s success. Jaunita Hughes went to the first workshop in 2011, and has attended every one since. “I like the accountability,” she said.
Hughes joined the first time because of health problems. She said her doctor told her to cut out salt and greasy foods, but she didn’t know the best way to follow the new guidelines until she met Edwards. “He has answered a whole lot of my questions,” she said. “He’s changed my idea about salad”—she didn’t use to eat it—“and salad dressing”—a little lemon and olive oil instead of creamy dressings. Her health may not be exactly where she’d like it to be, but, she said, “It’s kept me from going in the other direction.”
Edwards finishes up Saturday’s class by demonstrating how to make a dish from fresh hearty vegetables, including dinosaur kale and tomatoes, as the participants gather around, taking notes and shooting questions at him.
“You’re wasting the stems,” Hughes says accusingly to Edwards, who is slicing them out. Looking over at her with an expression that is simultaneously wary and endearing, he laughs and explains that he’ll be using the dinosaur kale stems for a separate step. She gives him a hug and watches intently as he got back to work.
To register for A Taste of Health workshop call (510) 470-0444.