Community outreach is an increasingly important part of the mission for many healthcare institutions, and often their nutrition services department takes on a big role in promoting healthy lifestyles, usually through cooking demonstrations and presentations on healthy eating.
One major healthcare institution that has taken this mission seriously—and taken it on the road—is The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (OSUWMC), with its new Mobile Education Kitchen (MEK).
“We found there was a great need for us and a lot of requests to go out into the community and put a chef with a dietitian to help educate populations on nutrition and its health impact,” says Mike Folino, associate director of nutrition services at OSUWMC. “And we thought, what better way to do this than by a [dedicated vehicle] as we had been doing it out of the back seat of somebody’s car.”
The $260,000 cost of purchasing and outfitting the MEK came from the James Fund for Life’s Celebration for Life program, which supports cancer research at OSUWMC.
MEK debuted this past May at the Ohio Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics annual conference in Columbus, where it demonstrated its capabilities to an audience made up mostly of industry professionals.
More typical of its activities are stops at community health days at both the main medical center campus and at community hospital sites, where the truck is usually part of a larger effort that includes blood screenings for cholesterol, diabetes and similar conditions. It also makes appearances at community gardens that OSUWMC helps operate and manage, where the chef demonstrates how to use the produce from the garden to make a simple but healthy dish. Another major focus is presentations to cancer survivorship groups, and at Columbus Public Schools sites through Columbus Public Health.
“We have a couple of things set up with a number of schools later this fall and into next spring,” notes James Warner, program director of food & nutrition for OSUWMC Nutrition Services.
MEK is also available for corporate events, which pay a fee for the truck’s participation, something that in turn helps finance its community activities, Warner says.
“We average two to three events a week,” he says, “which is about as many as we can do because we need a day [in between events] to load up and get the truck cleaned up to go back out. It’s definitely made a splash here locally, and [as of early September] we are currently booked all the way through November 16th.”
MEK generally is at a site for about three hours, during which it conducts several sessions that include not just the cooking demo and accompanying presentation but the passing out of samples and answering of questions.
The truck is fairly prominent and usually quite a draw at events. It has a large observation window from which to view demos, as well as a pair of 40-inch flat screen monitors connected to a camera inside that captures the demo.
“One advantage of that,” Folino observes, “is that in case of bad weather, we can move everybody inside and live-stream the demo from the truck. It expands our reach so we don’t have to present only from the truck.”
The agenda typically has Warner making a short introductory presentation that talks about what will follow as well as about the importance of plant-based eating and the sponsorship and mission of James Celebration for Life. That’s followed by a joint presentation by Warner and Chef David Brue, a culinary educator hired specifically to work on the truck as the demo chef. In this part of the proceedings, Warner tries to include information about specific plants, especially if the event includes a farmers market component: the health benefits of Swiss chard, for instance, or the benefits of the lycopene present in tomatoes.
“I just try to educate them on why they should have more of a plant-based lifestyle,” Warner says. “One of the suggestions we have for them is that they try something new from the produce aisle once a week.”
Audience reaction has been very positive, Warner says. “People love that we are actually meeting them where they are. The Wexner medical center is a very large complex and sometimes it’s very difficult for people to come here, so by us going into the different communities in central Ohio, we are taking the message to them.”