Annie Andrews’s doctor said she needed to lose weight, but that wasn’t a simple request for the Parmele resident.
“Some of the ingredients I needed (for healthier recipes), I couldn’t afford,” Andrews said. “I’m retired. And at my age, I’m almost 80, that makes a difference.”
That was 50 pounds ago – and counting.
Kay Craven, director of clinical nutrition services at ECU Physicians, talks with patients during a free program at ECU’s Family Medicine Center.
Andrews is one of dozens of eastern North Carolina residents realizing the life-changing benefits of a free program offered through ECU Physicians – in partnership with the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina and with funding assistance from Vidant Health – that helps patients achieve and maintain healthier lifestyles on a limited budget.
The Building Healthier Families program includes monthly cooking demonstrations of healthy recipes, during which the patients are given bags filled with the ingredients for the featured recipe – free of charge – enabling them to make the dish at home without having to buy the ingredients.
“In eastern North Carolina, we have more obesity, more diabetes and more hypertension, and the outcomes of those are worse here than the rest of our state,” said Kay Craven, director of clinical nutrition services at ECU Physicians.
Of the 37 North Carolina counties on or east of the I-95 corridor, all but 10 have heart disease mortality rates higher than the national and state averages, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 22 of those counties also have diabetes mortality rates higher than both the national and state averages, the CDC data showed.
All but eight of those same eastern North Carolina counties reported having higher obesity rates than the state average, according to data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“We know that many patients need to eat better and choose healthier foods, but a lot of times people will share that cooking healthy is expensive,” Craven added. “So we’re teaching them how they can cook on a much lower budget and with healthy ingredients.”
Sara Clement prepares a healthy dish at a cooking class in ECU’s Family Medicine Center auditorium.
A healthier twist
During March’s cooking class, Sara Clement, nutrition education manager for the Food Bank, showed the patients how to make zucchini and black bean stuffed sweet potatoes. Other recent recipes included sweet potato turkey chili, pineapple fried rice and a black bean soup.
“We only provide healthy recipes here. They don’t take long, they’re heart healthy, they’re diabetic friendly, they’re nutritional for you and they’re using low-budget ingredients,” Clement said. “It’s either recipes that they’ve never heard of, or that might be one of their favorites that we just put a healthier twist on it.”
Greenville resident Roman Rys said his diet used to consist primarily of “junk,” such as fast food, donuts, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toaster pastries.
Six months after his doctor referred him to the Building Healthier Families program, however, Rys has lost about 15 pounds and is cooking healthier food options at home.
“My diet’s gotten much better. About once a week, on average, I cook what I learn here. It tastes really good and it’s been great for my health,” said Rys, 26. “As far as weight loss, it’s certainly helped. And I have more energy throughout the day.”
Turning the tide
ECU Physicians has been hosting a version of the cooking class for five years. But within the last year, grant funding from the Vidant Foundation and a partnership with the Food Bank has made it possible for the patients to leave with bags filled with ingredients.
“It takes a village. There is no way that the family medicine department could do this by themselves,” Craven said. “It is something that our community desperately needs. Vidant has recognized that and has given us funds to help us with the food, and the Food Bank helps us be able to buy it at much lower prices.”
Nutrition major Kayla Daugherty advises a patient as part of a free program offered through ECU Physicians.
In addition to the cooking classes, the patients – most of whom are referred to the program by their physicians – also receive free one-on-one nutritional counseling from ECU nutrition students, exercise with assistance from ECU’s exercise science department and behavioral medicine classes given by behavioral medicine interns at ECU’s Family Medicine Center to help them adjust to their changing lifestyles.
“This is a great opportunity to help the community and it allows us to share what we’ve learned with these patients as practice before we get into the field ourselves,” said Kayla Daugherty, a senior nutrition major at ECU.
“It feels nice. It’s something that I didn’t know I was capable of until recently, honestly,” Daugherty said of seeing actual patients benefit from her help. “It just makes me excited for my future and for what I get to do for the rest of my life.”
Annie Andrews said the class has changed her life.
“I wouldn’t have lost the weight if I hadn’t been in this program and now I exercise. I’m cooking different and I’m eating different. I wouldn’t have done any of that without this program. I would’ve been just sitting at home watching TV,” she said. “Now I’m wearing smaller clothes, I feel healthier and now I can move my legs better!”
Andrews said her husband, Horace, also benefits from the class, even though he does not attend in person.
“I have ingredients that I don’t have to buy,” she said. “I get to cook for him when I get home.” Craven said this is one of the indirect goals of the program.
“If we can start habits with patients, that can trickle down to family,” she said. “Then we can really start to turn the tide on obesity and health problems in eastern North Carolina.”