I Want To...
I Want To...
Find Research Faculty
Enter the last name, specialty or keyword for your search below.
School of Medicine
I Want to...
Returning to the Roots
A community nutrition initiative aims to improve health by reclaiming African heritage.
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith
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.
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 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.
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.
Mosley, now in her 38th year at Johns Hopkins, 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. She says that a big part of the success of Faith and Foodways at Johns Hopkins 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 United, 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 stockpot 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.
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.
As the Bible study wraps up, 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.”