This holiday season you can hold on to your health and flavor.
By Melissa F. Pheterson
Holiday dinners can warm the heart but also clog its arteries. Family meals can be steeped in tradition yet smothered in sugar.
Imagine a team of chefs and nutritionists coming into your house of worship to share healthier versions of hallowed dishes and strategies to prevent diabetes or heart disease. That’s the mission of Faith and Flavor, a new community health-outreach initiative of Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth) in Valhalla.
“In my family’s Southern Baptist tradition, I grew up seeing leaders preach salvation from the pulpit and then, oftentimes, after the service, the church would serve food that, while delicious, was usually unhealthy,” says Mecca Santana, Senior Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement. “In sharing our vision for something different with local faith leaders, we articulated how we could partner with them to keep their congregants healthy – because they are also our patients and workforce.”
As a component of the larger Food for Life campaign at WMCHealth, the Faith and Flavor initiative partners with leaders of churches, mosques and synagogues to showcase healthy eating for disease prevention, tapping into these close-knit communities to help save the lives they enrich.
Santana and Michelle Johnson, Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement, lead a team of WMCHealth nutritionists and diabetes educators, along with chefs from WMCHealth’s food partner, Morrison Healthcare. The team visits places of worship to demonstrate cooking, discuss health-and-wellness strategies, invite the audience to taste-test, and make health-conscious adjustments to traditional dishes: substituting milk for cream in casseroles or roasting vegetables instead of frying them in oil. But Johnson also acknowledges that there are sometimes challenges, for many cling to recipes as their lifelines to family and faith.
“If you’ve been enjoying Grandma’s macaroni and cheese for 50 years, and a chef comes along to make changes, there may be hesitation,” Johnson says. “But we prepare for that challenge by getting congregants involved. We encourage five to 10 people in the audience to prepare the meals along with the chef. And, of course, we have food prepared for everyone else in the audience to taste. It’s a group effort.”
Johnson adds that WMCHealth has partnered with faith-based institutions that have health-and-wellness-based sub-ministries.
“The health sub-ministry directly aligns with our initiative,” she says. “Having a nutrition expert reinforce those church teachings is so valuable.”
Johnson adds that this program remains respectful of the diverse needs of faith communities and lends a hand without wagging fingers. “We meet with individual religious leaders to get a feel for the demographic of their congregations, so we’re going in prepared to meet the needs of our audiences.”
Faith leaders can extend the impact of the sessions by weaving messaging into their sermons — for example, reminding worshippers to get regular checkups. “Our partners are willing to preach health to their congregations,” Santana says. “We have to initiate a respectful dialogue that’s not patronizing or demeaning but empowering.”
Faith-based communities also support Food for Life’s mission to fight food insecurity, which has restricted access to healthy choices, through their support of food pantries and food banks.
“We all love soul food,” says Santana. “Through this program, we try to equip people with skills that nourish the whole self – mind, body and soul – to create a longer, healthier life.”
Pictured at top: (From left) Allison Wharton, Assistant Food Service Director, Sous Chef; Elaine Ridley, RD, Clinical Nutrition Manager, System Dietician; Marisa Elliott, RD
Photos by Teresa Horgan