Two DMU electives serve up perspectives on food and nutrition at micro and macro levels. Students just eat them up.
Students stream into DMU’s wellness center kitchen, helping themselves to steaming cups of jasmine tea before settling into their chairs. A whiteboard on the wall lists today’s multicourse menu, from soup (miso) to nuts (tofu sesame almond cookies). Members of the wellness staff and faculty bustle around the counter, assembling tools and ingredients.
The scene feels like a dinner party among friends, which in a way it is, but the chefs and students have a mission in this meal: to apply their knowledge of nutrition in preparing healthy dishes that don’t require a doctorate in culinary arts. Joy Schiller, M.S., CHES, director of DMU’s wellness program, and David Spreadbury, Ph.D., chair of biochemistry and nutrition, have co-taught this popular elective course to DMU’s osteopathic students since 2007.
“I’m really interested in health and wellness. This is an opportunity to expand my horizons in cooking,” says Caleb Masterson, D.O.’14. “Plus we get to see Dr. Wilson in an apron.”
That’s Wayne Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and nutrition, who sometimes assists in the class. Swathed in an apron with a kilt motif, the native Scot tonight is in charge of the miso soup and steamed fish packets. Between those two dishes, Schiller demonstrates how to make a tofu-mintveggie spring roll, which garners a round of applause.
“Our goal is to provide basic hints on cooking more nutritiously as well as cooking more creatively,” she explains. “We’re somewhat technique-driven. We also encourage students to stock their pantries so that they can make a quick and healthy meal without having to shop.”
In addition, she and Spreadbury work to reduce food preparation’s fear factor. “Cooking is a creative outlet – it’s like quilting in the kitchen,” he says, effusing about the merits of fish sauce and other culinary delights. “Cook with abandon! There’s a whole world out there to try.”
Equally important, class members learn that cooking can be healthy, affordable and doable, lessons that will serve them well in their lives and careers.
“It’s hard to find time to cook, but I’ve learned it doesn’t have to take a lot of time,” says Emily Morse, D.O.’14. “As physicians, it’s our responsibility to take care of our patients. We can show them that if we have time to cook healthy meals with our busy lifestyles, they can do it, too.”
Stacie Kamada, D.O.’14, says the class has motivated her to eat more vegetables and less fried foods and to think about counseling future patients. “I’ll need to give them practical ways they can reach healthy goals,” she says, as an ooh-and-ahh-inspiring pile of fresh vegetables crackles in two giant woks. “You can’t just tell people, ‘You need to lose weight.’”
What’s Driving Our Diet?
An elective in DMU’s public health program, “We Are What We Eat,” digs into the science of nutrition and then takes bigger bites into the economics of farm policy and food marketing, food origin and distribution, and implications for public health.
“We need to understand the basics of nutrition to shape food and public health policies,” says course instructor and Assistant Professor F.R. “Fritz” Nordengren, M.P.H. “We also need to understand that food systems have to be a keystone to any WHAT SHOULD WE EAT? health policy.”
Students in the course, offered for the first time last fall, examine the economic drivers in agriculture, food production and distribution that also drive our diet. Government subsidies for such commodities as milk and corn, for example, affect school lunch menus and the prices of foods filled with ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup – in comparison to, say, fresh produce.
“Today’s consumers typically have access to 3,900 calories per day, yet the average person needs around 2,000,” Nordengren says. “At the same time, some people in the U.S. are food-insecure.”
Nordengren is no anti-government, antibig agriculture evangelist on food policy. He does raise free-range, antibiotic-free ducks, turkeys and chickens on his 80-acre property near Grand River, IA, an endeavor he clearly enjoys but one that taught him “small-scale production is not profitable.”
“We need large-scale farmers, processors and retailers to feed the world,” he says. “Food production is not a binary issue. We need producers of all sizes.”
Nordengren applies that balanced perspective in his role as president of the Iowa Food Systems Council. Established in 2000 by then-Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the now-member-driven nonprofit studies ways to address the needs of producers and consumers “from food to fork to disposal,” Nordengren says. Its members come from sectors ranging from farmers to food banks to physicians to public health leaders.
“It creates a safe and neutral environment for constituents to meet who otherwise might not come together,” he adds.
Controversies like outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and freerange versus concentrated animal feeding led in part to Nordengren’s work on a new public health course, “Don’t Put That in Your Mouth.” It will explore issues like food safety, security and sovereignty – “what we need to do as a state and nation,” he explains, “so we’re not dependent on things we can’t control.”
He adds that DMU can play a key role in tackling such issues.
“I think DMU is uniquely positioned to not offend producers, whether conventional or organic, because we can look at food issues from a nutritional standpoint,” he says.
Real Food for Real People
Back in the DMU wellness center kitchen, on the last meeting of the seven-week healthy cooking class, students take over, preparing a meal that reflects the healthful, largely plant-based principles and skills they’ve learned. By that point, they know, among other things, that slicing an onion is not brain surgery; that roasted Brussels sprouts are delicious; and, with a little planning, medical students do have time to cook.
Despite the huge role diet plays in one’s health, the American Medical Association says few medical schools offer classes that give future physicians hands-on healthy cooking skills. But students in the DMU class say they’ll be better equipped to advise patients about improving their diets in ways that are practical, affordable and tasty. Given food’s role in our health, that’s something.
“We can do so much for our health with relatively minor changes, like introducing healthy foods that will push out some of the bad stuff,” Spreadbury says. “Equally important is how it all tastes. You can come up with the healthiest diet in the world, but no one will eat it if it doesn’t taste good.”