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Good cooking takes root: Promoting healthy dietary change through connection to the African diaspora

Intergenerational culinary science is playing out through the "A Taste of African Heritage" coursework

Instructor and nutritionist Winona Bynum (right) calls the shots from the ATOAH recipe book

Carrots are added to a vegetable medley sautéing on the stove

By day, the cafeteria and kitchen of Christ the King Catholic Church is busy preparing lunch in the service of its adjoining K-8 school. Most nights, it's pretty quiet—sometimes the facilities are used to host fundraisers or other church-related events. But on a Monday in February, a small gathering coalesced for a different purpose: the intersection of healthy eating practices and African heritage. 

This is the mid-term installment of a six-class series on the "A Taste of African Heritage" diet—a nutritional education effort offered in a partnership between the Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC) and the nonprofit Metropolitan Organization Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES). "A Taste of African Heritage" is just one of many approaches taken by the DFPC to address inequities in Detroit's food systems, and retool some of the ways Detroiters deal with their health and wellness through eating. 

Studies have shown that African-American populations suffer disproportionately from food-related health conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. The reasons for these disparities are myriad. There's cultural and social factors, such as an affinity for traditional home cooking that may include lots of salt, animal fats, or sugar. Also the cheapest foods are almost always less healthy than fresh or organic options, and low-income families often have less access to healthier eating alternatives. 

Organizations like the DFPC and MOSES seek to address these inequities through policy reform, the creation and support of localized and sustainable food systems, and educational efforts, like the one taking place over six wintery Mondays in Christ the King's kitchen. While previous DFPC educational series were aimed directly at community members, this particular series has the ambition of training participants to disseminate the learnings through their own classes, often in the context of auxiliary congregational activities or health ministries. 

One such participant is Nefer Ra, who teaches urban farming classes at Earthworks—an urban farming campus connected with the long-running Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Detroit's east side. Nefer Ra is a powerful presence in the urban farm community, and a tireless advocate for food justice in Detroit. But despite the seriousness of her mission and the determination with which she tackles the obstacles that face Detroiters seeking food sovereignty, Nefer Ra's demeanor is playful. One participant suggests that being a good cook is a way to get a man. 

"Oh no, I don't want him to know I can cook," Nefer Ra says. "Then he'll expect it!" The kitchen explodes in laughter. 

Nefer-Ra (in blue) holds court and chops onions

Classes like these are more than just recipe-sharing and community-building—although a great deal of both take place in the kitchen. The primary aim is to intervene with eating habits on an individual and community level, to centralize healthy and informed decision-making among Detroiters about the foods they consume, and critically, those they serve to their children. 

The informational session that kicks off each of the lessons serves not just to receive information from the instructor, licensed nutritionist, and DFPC executive director Winona Bynum, but also as an opportunity to swap anecdotal wisdom between participants.

"When you're raising kids, you have to remember you're helping form their tastes," says DFPC program director Kibibi Blount-Dorn. "It can take up to sixteen times for a child to adjust to a new taste, especially something bitter or with strong flavors, so you have to keep presenting it to them. It can even take as many as twenty-one times if your child is especially picky.

"I have one of those 21-times children," she adds with a laugh.

Tonight's lesson focuses on beans and rice, which is a full-protein, vegetarian, lactose-free means of adding calcium to a diet. The six sections of the class cover: spices, greens, whole grains, beans and rice, tubers and mashes, and fruits, veggies, and healthy lifestyle. 

The recipes and formulations in the Taste of Africa diet rely on replacing some of the dangerous staples of "soul food"—often high in sodium—with an array of traditional spices from the African diaspora, such as allspice, curry, and cilantro, that might feature flavors that children find strong. But the course doesn't propose radical or unsustainable lifestyle alterations, instead seeking to incorporate substitutions and gradual changes in habits.

"I came to this work while I was changing my own diet," says Bynum. "It's a gradual process."

"I gave up pop a couple years ago," another participant puts in. "The other day, at a church gathering, they had a pitcher of what I thought was water, and it turned out to be Sprite. I took a sip by accident and was horrified by how sweet it was. I lost the taste for it."

The class's youngest member does the honors with a spice preparation she helped measure

Even small changes to diet and lifestyle can have massive long-term benefits, especially when they are imparted to younger generations. In the kitchen, and under careful supervision, the youngest class member, eight-years old, helps measure out the ingredients for a flavorful rice dish, a chickpea salad, and a Caribbean Coconut Red Beans dish. The kitchen buzzes with energy, women swapping stories, cooking tips, and flavorful aromas. 

Ben Washburn, MOSES treasurer and representative of Christ the King Catholic Church, helped facilitate the class. "We see education and experiences like this as a foundational way of building a strong congregation," Washburn says. "Just look at this place. Who wouldn't want to be a part of something like this?"

It's true that collective food preparation and sharing meals falls increasingly by the wayside in the name of convenience, round-the-clock working hours, and fractured communities. So perhaps it's not only a culinary heritage that classes like this are hoping to reclaim, but one of togetherness, mutual support, and mealtimes as a positive and inter-generational experience. 

For more information about the series and other future nutrition education series, visit the Detroit Food Policy Council online.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

All photos by the author.

Read more articles by Sarah Rose Sharp.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, photographer, and multimedia artist whose articles have appeared in "Art in America," "Hyperallergic," "Flash Art," "ArtSlant," and others.
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