A Recipe for Better Health

Friday, September 8, 2017

In Bexar County, one in three school-age children is either overweight or obese. The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is a founding partner in an innovative community collaboration aimed at lowering that statistic.

Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF), an innovative program rooted in the belief that food is medicine, has a bold vision of motivating San Antonio families to adopt and sustain healthier eating habits by teaching basic nutrition and practical cooking skills to children and families. The program, conceived and funded by the Goldsbury Foundation, features a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen designed by The Culinary Institute of America, the first such kitchen in the nation to be located in the heart of a children’s hospital.

“Research shows when people start cooking for themselves and eating at home, their health improves,” says Julie La Barba, MD, CHEF’s Medical Director. “But it also shows that many people lack that kitchen know-how, and they need help learning the basics. CHEF is a practical approach to teach families the basic kitchen skills they need to get real food on the table — not just that’s good for them, but that they can afford and that their families will want to eat.”

Families receive a referral to the teaching kitchen from their physician, who has identified their child as being at risk for developing serious conditions related to being overweight or obese. Thanks to the funding from the Goldsbury Foundation, CHEF classes are offered free of charge to physician-referred patients as the program gets established.

During classes, children join in and help with the food preparation. They can help mom or dad in the kitchen by reading the recipe, measuring ingredients and chopping vegetables.

“We had one child tell us he’d rather be in the kitchen than playing video games,” Dr. La Barba says. “And that’s exactly what we strive for, making the whole food preparation experience engaging for the whole family, so they want to continue using their new skills at home.”

At the end of the class, families sit down at a long wooden table and enjoy the meal they’ve prepared. Sometimes, children and their parents are eating food they have never tried before such as salmon, kale or jicama.

The CHEF team at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio includes Dr. La Barba, as well as Program Director and Chef Maria Palma who was trained at The Culinary Institute of America; Celina Parás, a registered dietitian; and Rebecca Vance, Program Coordinator. The team is bilingual and currently offers classes in both English and Spanish.

Prior to the opening of the Teaching Kitchen, Palma and Parás worked together to develop the proprietary evidence-based culinary medicine curriculum that bridges the art of cooking and the science of nutrition in each class. The curriculum developed for the hospital setting was then modified so it could be offered in nonclinical settings at the network of CHEF Community Teaching Kitchens around San Antonio, including the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club and the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

“In the past, most approaches to reducing childhood and adult obesity in the United States have relied on providing individuals and families with recipes, handouts, booklets and coupons,” Dr. La Barba says. “We take things a step further by helping parents understand the basics of grocery shopping, reading food labels, food preparation and all the steps in between. That’s how we hope to bring about lifelong behavioral changes that can affect a family’s overall health and well-being.”

The CHEF program is part of the $135 million renovation project that began in 2012 to transform the Hospital’s downtown campus into the city’s first freestanding children’s hospital. Since 1959, the hospital included both adult and pediatric services. But after many years of negotiations among the various healthcare systems, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word – San Antonio decided to take a leap of faith and provide families with world-class health care and access to experts in a full-range of medical services. Through a partnership with Baylor College of Medicine, The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio began attracting talent from renowned children’s hospitals across the country.

In 2015, a pediatric residency program was established and 10 new medical school graduates joined the hospital. Most residents admit that the opportunity to train in culinary medicine was a major factor in their decision to receive their pediatric training at The Children’s Hospital. Those residents participated in their first culinary medicine class last fall. Dr. La Barba tells the students that the teaching kitchen is one of the few places during their residency experience where it’s safe to say, “I don’t know.”

While in medical school, physicians typically are required to take 25 hours of nutrition education, yet only 27 percent meet the criteria.

“It’s estimated that 70 percent of chronic diseases are associated with preventable causes related to diet and exercise,” Dr. La Barba says. “That’s a reason to get serious about having doctors include nutrition at the forefront of their practice.”

Pediatricians in particular have a unique opportunity to impact an entire family’s nutrition and eating habits. During the first five years of life, a pediatrician will have as many as 20 encounters with a young patient and may be the only physician the family visits on a regular basis.

“We are preparing a whole new generation of pediatricians to be equipped to help families recognize that food can be the best medicine of all,” Dr. La Barba says.

To learn more about the CHEF program and download CHEF-approved recipes, visit chefsa.org.