SOUTH SHORE — A new study which aims to improve the health of Black women on the South Side through healthy foods is winding down as its organizers prepare to spread the initiative across Chicago.
Food Is Medicine: Healing Together is a 12-week “community support” program to address hypertension in residents of South Shore and nearby communities. Twenty participants gathered weekly starting in June at Bryn Mawr Community Church’s community kitchen, 7000 S. Jeffery Blvd. in South Shore.
They assist chefs with recipes, eat the meals they created together, get guidance on healthier eating — like learning low-sodium versions of the foods they already enjoy — and receive weekly grocery packages with items from 40 Acres Fresh Market and Star Farm.
“We try to use these local food spaces, producers [and] retailers and teach the women how to use the produce that’s in those bags,” said Saria Lofton, the Food Is Medicine program’s primary investigator and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Nursing.
One group of women finished the program in August, and received large bags of groceries, pans, kitchen utensils and other items to help them continue cooking on their own. The other cohort wraps up Tuesday.
Researchers will continue meeting with the women over the next three months to track whether their participation improves their blood pressure, body mass index and sodium intake over time.
“This is a way of addressing the problem [of health disparities among Black women] and seeing that there could be an actual change in metrics — lower blood pressure, lower lipids, glucose levels, things like that,” Lofton said. “There is a change by having more access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Katrina Gatson, a South Shore resident, faces rising prices and “limited supplies” of healthy ingredients at nearby grocers like Jewel-Osco and Save A Lot, she said.
Gatson’s home neighborhood and nearby South Chicago host numerous community gardens, but there are few in her immediate area that would be convenient to join, she said. That has her curious about starting her own urban farm to cut down on her grocery bills, she said.
“I was just saying to someone, like, ‘Man, we need to just start our own farm or garden and start eating our own vegetables — especially with how much the prices have gone up in the stores,” Gatson said.
Gatson is not alone in facing price and transportation barriers to accessing healthy food, Lofton said. That’s particularly problematic as “chronic diseases and health disparities are prominent in our communities,” she said.
That’s why Lofton and other program partners are working to secure funding for an expanded Food Is Medicine Program across Chicago’s neighborhoods.
“I would hope [to expand to] Austin, Garfield Park, Lawndale, Englewood,” Lofton said. “There’s still plenty of places here, unfortunately, within the city where a lack of access to fresh food is still very prevalent. It also happens to be in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“We can see this lack of fresh produce, these higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, some cancers,” she said. “This is one aspect — our food environment — that we could actually target, because we know how much food plays a role in everything we do.”
Programs like Food Is Medicine will take time to impact entire communities, participants said. In the short-term, the program can have a ripple effect as the women share their dishes with loved ones and neighbors, participant Sylvia Robinson said.
Robinson, a Washington Park resident, fell in love with recipes like spicy honey salmon, swiss chard, orange rosemary chicken, stir-fry vegetables through the program, she said.
She’s preparing to win over her family members with new Thanksgiving dishes — but will wait to tell them how healthy the recipes are, she said.
“I’m getting ready to make a couple of dishes, give it to my family members and don’t tell them what it is,” Robinson said. “I’ll let them see the difference in eating when we eat together.”
Program organizers took a slow, understanding approach to helping participants improve their eating habits, said Jeannine Wise, program director of food justice organization Good Food is Good Medicine. Wise was the lead instructor for the program’s cooking classes.
“We never take foods away from people, we only teach them more techniques and add more veggies,” Wise said. “When they’re ready to make changes, they will have that support and that toolbox.
“Even though the system might not be for them, the community is,” Wise said. “We create community and fellowship and a whole lot of love, so they can go forward with their knowledge and apply it as they want with culturally affirming foods that they’re able to access.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: