Practicing Culinary Medicine

The Johns Hopkins Community Physicians practice in Remington holds cooking classes to help neighborhood residents improve their health.

Published in Dome - Community Issue 2017

On a steamy August night, Tina Kumra and Ryan Lang stand at a long stainless steel table, slicing tomatoes, chopping beans and sorting produce from Gather Baltimore, a volunteer-based program that collects surplus vegetables and fruits to sell at low cost to those in need.

It’s a novel team effort for the highly trained Johns Hopkins physicians. Steeped in 21st-century medicine, these primary care doctors now pay weekly house calls to a church in North Baltimore to help their workplace neighbors learn about nutritious meals.

For the past year, Kumra, a pediatrician who also serves as clinical director for the Johns Hopkins General Preventive Medicine Residency, and Lang, a preventive medicine resident, have joined other volunteers from Johns Hopkins Community Physicians (JHCP) to prepare, and share, a community dinner at The Church of the Guardian Angel. A haven for many underserved residents in Remington, the Episcopal church is located a few blocks from JHCP’s sparkling new practice suite.

When the primary care practice moved from its Wyman Park location in September 2016, Kumra met with Alice Bassett-Jellema, pastor of Guardian Angel, to determine ways that the Johns Hopkins clinicians could contribute to the well-being of their new neighborhood.

“This has been a poor-diet kind of place with plenty of illness attributable to that fact,” says Bassett-Jellema. “What we asked for was to help us eat better. Although it takes a long time to change an eating habit, people are now starting to see that they can have an appetite for something healthy.”

Kale is growing in the church garden. Quinoa and tofu are no longer foreign words. Mac and cheese faces competition from baked zucchini. On the program surveys that JHCP conducts regularly, community dinner participants say they now cook at home more often and use ingredients they learned about at “Thursday Cooking with the Docs.”

In 2016, Kumra received a $10,000 grant to start the program from The Brancati Center for the Advancement of Community Care at Johns Hopkins. At first, she engaged a chef to teach healthy cooking classes. Now she and her colleagues have taken up the role of persuading roughly 20 regular participants to incorporate more nutritious ingredients into their customary diets.

 “Some of the people who are most engaged are teenagers, and it’s really phenomenal,” Kumra says. “They’re not only enjoying problem-solving by figuring out what to do with the different ingredients we have each week, but they’re also leading the cooking classes. The elementary school kids follow along. If we can change habits early in life, it will have an incredible impact.”

Bassett-Jellema says that the healthy cooking program is also bridging the gulf between those sections of Remington that are being transformed by stylish apartments and businesses and those that remain mired in low income and high unemployment. She notes that every week, JHCP staff members engage with church members who struggle with mental illness and behavioral problems—the folks who are “sometimes difficult to care for in our society.”

“What I’m loving about this program is that we’re making a community together,” she says. “It’s not like them and us, it’s all us.”