UMN class teaches healthy eating to improve public health

Chef Jenny Breen said she and her co-founder received a grant in 2016 to create the class; the pilot last fall was offered to medical students.

Professional chef Jenny Breen helps Katelyn Erickson cut a sweet potato at The Good Acre in St. Paul on Wednesday. Jan, 17. 2017.

Meagan Lynch

Professional chef Jenny Breen helps Katelyn Erickson cut a sweet potato at The Good Acre in St. Paul on Wednesday. Jan, 17. 2017.

Olivia Johnson

It was the scene at the Good Acre in St. Paul on Wednesday evening. Since last fall, Food Matters, a graduate-level class for new cooks has been offered by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Taught by chef Jenny Breen and University assistant professor of medicine Kate Shafto, the class promotes healthy eating as a strategy to improve public health and prevent chronic illnesses.

The class teaches healthy cooking techniques and recipes to health care students and future health professionals once a week for six weeks.

Breen, the co-founder of the class, has been a chef for over 25 years and started the class last fall.

“It is a unique approach,” she said. “I call this applied nutrition.”

Breen said she and her co-founder received a grant in 2016 to create the class, and the pilot version last fall was only offered to medical students.

Shafto, who teaches with Breen, is a pediatrician and assistant professor in the University’s medical school. She said she developed the class after personal experiences helped her realize the need for education on food and well-being.

“We’ve tried to make the acute care model work for chronic diseases,” she said, explaining that this model pushes health professionals to find the disease and fix it.

Both Breen and Shafto said they want to highlight how cooking with whole foods is accessible, sustainable and closely relates to well-being.

“It was a brand new idea to some people,” said Breen of her approach to food.

She said many health professionals don’t know how to advise patients on healthy eating.

Katelyn Erickson, a second-year doctor of nursing practice student, said she found the class on a course list and felt it applied to her integrative health and healing specialty.

After the first class, Erickson said she was impressed by Breen and Shafto’s teaching and cooking skills and ability to communicate to health professionals in different fields.

During the cooking portion of the class, Erickson said she chopped parsnips, turnips and sweet potatoes, seasoned them with herbs and oven roasted them.

“It was good to combine whole foods that are local and sustainable and rich in flavor into simple recipes,” she said.

The class is a way to learn about the food system and how it relates to healthcare institutions, Erickson said. She believes that a change in understanding how food relates to wellbeing could impact healthcare facilities and allow communities to connect with local farmers.

“Both as a personal and professional philosophy, [food is] a way of reshaping the current healthcare system,” she said, adding that using local and organic foods with cooking skills can heal patients and prevent chronic illnesses.

Once the course is done, Erickson said she hopes she’s equipped with a greater knowledge base of how to integrate nutrition into flavorful meals.

“It’s really great to be immersed among a variety of health professional students,” she said. “So many are actually interested in this movement.”

Tiffany Joy Ralston, a student services specialist at CSH, has volunteered to help the class since its first section.

Ralston said she’s always been interested in nutrition and wanted to get involved.

“It’s been growing a lot by word of mouth,” she said. “It gives the students a chance to get away from their normal medical school.”

She said Breen and Shafto are working to get more grants for the class as well as list it under the medical school’s course offerings. Ralston said she expects demand to grow, noting that the class doubled in students from the first section to the second section last fall.

“People are starting to become more aware of nutrition as it relates to their health,” she said. “This is a concrete way for people to learn about the facts.”