Returning to the Roots

Faith and Food program seeks to improve health by reclaiming African heritage.

Published in Dome - March/April 2017

As the faithful file into the West Baltimore church basement for Wednesday evening Bible study, they leave their steaming covered dishes in the industrial kitchen. About 40 study group members seat themselves at Union Memorial United Methodist Church’s colorful oil-clothed tables, their Bibles and workbook materials in front of them.

The aroma of home-cooked food drifts into the room. There will be no macaroni and cheese this evening, though. No hams, no potato salad, no lasagna. Instead, there’s plenty of spinach, beans and healthy, whole-grain dishes, prepared from recipes gathered specially for this occasion.

For the past six weeks, Adrian Mosley, administrator of Johns Hopkins’ Office of Community Health, has been a guest at Union Memorial’s weekly Bible study meeting. She has introduced this group to Faith and Food, a nutrition education program aimed at helping them improve their health by connecting their faith with their cultural heritage. Members of the Harlem Park church are learning about, preparing and eating the wholesome foods their ancestors ate years—even centuries—ago in the American South, the Caribbean and Africa.

“You have to meet folks where they gather,” Mosley says. “The people we’re trying to reach are not going to come out on a cold night just to learn about healthy food. But if they’re already coming to a Bible study meeting, then that’s where we’ll try to reach them.”

The cooking class curriculum was developed by Oldways, a nonprofit organization in Boston that aims to combat obesity and the toll it takes on health by promoting recipes and heritage foods from Mediterranean, African, Caribbean and Latin American cultures. Since last year, Mosley has incorporated faith into the program’s nutritional discussions in order to reach the large community of African-American churchgoers in Baltimore.

A 38-year Johns Hopkins employee, Mosley is a social worker who works with researchers and clinicians on issues of health disparities in the neighborhoods and communities that surround the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus. A recent project was Safe in the Salon, a program aimed at helping beauty salon workers identify victims of domestic violence among their clientele.

Supported by the Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell Foundation and offered free to churches, Faith and Food combines Oldways materials with the faith-based approach of a healthy eating program at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Sade Anderson, Oldways’ African Heritage and Health program director, says that Faith and Food has “really broken new ground.” She expects that churches in New York and Chicago will soon follow suit.

‘Selling Ourselves Out’

The Johns Hopkins program is booked through the spring at St. Joseph Freewill Baptist Church in East Baltimore before returning to the west side at Central Baptist Church. Part of its success is due to the skills of Baltimorean Nneka Shoulds, a certified Oldways instructor pursuing a career in community nutrition, and the Rev. Harold L. Knight, who serves as the Johns Hopkins program’s pastor.

Before the Bible study begins at Union Memorial, for instance, Shoulds leads a review of a workbook chapter on fruits and vegetables. As she talks, she chops fresh cabbages, scooping up the crisp leaves and dropping them into a shiny, 8-quart stock pot on a gas burner. She adds a little olive oil, some sea salt, onions, ginger and garlic. Finally, she tosses in a pinch of cayenne pepper and stirs it all together.

Meanwhile, Knight discusses Bible passages related to temptation. “The devil looks for the weakness in each of us,” he says, “and food is a way that he looks for a weakness.” The pastor offers “supersizing” as an example of a food-related temptation. He points out that for about 40 cents, a fast food customer can upsize a meal, overloading it with calories, sugar and cholesterol.

“When we supersize, we’re basically selling ourselves out for 40 cents,” Knight tells the group, as many nod in agreement. “We let the physical overcome the spiritual in making the decisions for us.”

‘A Better Way to Eat, for Sure’

According to 2014 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading causes of death for African-Americans are heart disease, cancer and stroke. Life expectancy for black Americans is nearly four years shorter than for whites. And while Americans of all ethnicities have high rates of obesity, the percentage for African-American women stands at nearly 57 percent. Hypertension and diabetes are also disproportionately prevalent among African-American adults.

Central to Mosley’s Faith and Food program is the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, which Oldways describes as “a healthy eating model that celebrates the traditional eating pattern of African-American ancestors.” Those ancestors, says Mosley, ate a plant-based diet with far fewer animal products and no processed food.

At the pyramid’s base are fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. Fish, chicken, moderate dairy products and occasional sweets top the diagram. Noticeably absent from the pyramid are red meats, fried foods and sweetened beverages.

Sade Anderson of Oldways says that while many of the foods in the pyramid are familiar to black Americans, the key to health lies in their preparation.

“For example, we know about greens,” she says. “Collard greens and other types of greens are traditional for African-Americans. But we’re teaching people how to prepare them without using fat or boiling all the nutrients out of them.”

As Knight finishes his Bible study presentation, Shoulds spoons the braised cabbage into small bowls, which Mosley distributes. The cabbage is perfectly wilted and seasoned, the ginger and cayenne leaving behind a pleasantly spicy zip. A few members fan themselves, to chase away the pepper’s heat.

Later, some of the Bible group’s members allow Mosley to weigh them and take blood pressure readings, seeking to compare before-program and after-program numbers. One woman steps off the scale and gives her hips a little celebratory shake. “Look at me—I’m 6 pounds lighter!”

Weight loss isn’t the only goal, says Mosley. “We also pay attention to blood sugar, sodium, fiber—all kinds of things that can get lost when you’re not mindful of what you eat.”

As Helen Copeland gets her blood pressure checked, her daughter Brieana says they’ve taken to heart what they’ve learned each week from Mosley, Knight and Shoulds.

“It’s a better way to eat, for sure,” she says. She and her mother have tried new cooking methods as a result of the program.

“We’ve eaten a lot of broccoli,” Brieana says. “Now we probably eat broccoli three times a week. We broil it until it browns a little bit. We both love it.”

How does Helen’s blood pressure look? “Pretty good,” she smiles. “Must be the broccoli!”

Click to view the recipe for braised cabbage.

Click to view the recipe for millet with sweet potato and broccoli.

Learn more about the work Johns Hopkins Medicine does to benefit the communities it serves: