No more mushy peas. Why culturally competent meals might just save a life.
It’s time for the health system to pay for better food. It’s not just good care; it’s good business.
By Joi Chevalier
What if a good meal could prevent a trip to the emergency room?
That’s not a hypothetical question for people who have kidney issues, for example, and can’t afford (or don’t have access to) the ingredients or the knowledge needed to make the kinds of meals that will keep them from renal failure. Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is one of the greatest drivers of healthcare costs, associated with nearly one-fifth of hospital admissions.
Research has long shown that the quality of our diet is directly linked to our health outcomes, yet health providers have deployed few means to make meals an affordable and accessible part of an ongoing treatment plan for diabetes, CKD, hypertension, and countless other chronic or diet-related conditions. We’ve long known that comfort soups like chicken noodle, caldo or miso can alleviate symptoms of the flu or allergies, and we also have scientific evidence that specific ingredients can ease the side effects of medications or boost their efficacy, too.
This doesn’t just impact patients, it impacts businesses, as well. High-quality meals improve health outcomes and lower cost of care, and could save the healthcare industry an estimated $185 billion and 18 million hospitalizations over the next 10 years.
That same good meal — in our case, defined as a nutritious, made-from-scratch meal that is appealing, rooted in culturally familiar foodways and tastes, and tailored to an individual’s needs — can be the difference between a renal patient eating a meal with the kind of joy and nourishment that can put them on a path to recovery instead of suffering from a stagnating or worsening condition that could be bettered by accessing good food.
Serving better food to people in need has been the focus of The Cook’s Nook since 2020, when my 1,500-square-foot commercial kitchen pioneered the production and distribution of nutritious, culturally-relevant, prepared meals for vulnerable residents of Central Texas.
Our team has prepared more than 1.2 million of those delicious, made-from-scratch, nutrient-dense meals, which are then distributed to people across Austin and Travis counties. We tailor meals to the needs and preferences of those communities, including with health conditions in mind.
Whether in northeast Houston, where I was born and raised, or in the Eastern Crescent of Austin where The Cook’s Nook is located, I’ve experienced and seen firsthand the gaps in coverage for Black and brown communities and the disproportionate lack of access to quality nutrition.
Research demonstrates that social determinants of health — those factors like what kind of house someone lives in, where they work, if they have friends or family members who live nearby — can have serious effects on not just how people live, but how long they live and how much medical care they require over the course of their lives. Access to high quality, culturally competent meals could help folks in our historically underserved communities avoid economic loss and unnecessary hardship.
And in homes where people are living with chronic health conditions, good, nutritious food can be the difference between life and death.
One key to this overhaul of how we support Americans’ health is understanding the importance of cultural competence. When we consider the full context of people’s lives into both the meals and the outreach and distribution programs, which we help our clients develop, too, we create an entirely new path toward wellness that has the power to transform the health industry.
Studies show that the absence of cultural competence in healthcare settings can not only perpetuate health inequities and disparities among marginalized and diverse communities but also cause further harm.
Ignoring core cultural touchstones, like food history, flavors, methods of preparation or ritual practices, can demonstrate a lack of commitment and erode trust between provider and client. People are less likely to consume a poorly conceived or presented meal, especially one that does not speak to them in any way. Such a “meal” may instead become waste.
Instead, we must consider the challenges of food equity, insecurity, and access — and the realities of living with a chronic health condition — as key drivers that underlie the why and how people engage with food, so that w can create the right nutrition programs and solutions that result in positive health outcomes so clients may have healthier, fuller lives.
We hear repeatedly from clients about the joy they have anticipating our meals and how much better they feel when they eat our meals.
Many recipes are pulled directly from family recipes and histories and from our own culinary team’s personal narratives. That we incorporate religious and societal considerations is part of what engenders trust with our clients and ensures their satisfaction and program results. Every meal is tested and dietitian-approved.
We make everything we can in house, from salad dressings and sauces to seasoning blends, and our culinary-trained staff cooks with whole, fresh ingredients. Roasted salmon with quinoa pilaf. Quiche with asparagus and ham. Chicken Masala served on biryani rice. No mushy peas and carrots in sight.
As we continue to find new ways to offer our meals into communities that need them, we are working collaboratively with all kinds of businesses and organizations in the public sector to create new ways for people to access better options for food that can improve their overall well-being.
Through our solutions, we focus on building a pipeline of trust, from our relationships with vendors all the way to our relationships with community partners. We know that the best way to reach members of our community is through groups already serving them in trusted spaces, including community-focused non-profits that are intentional about the populations they serve, such as El Buen Samaritano and Saffron Woman’s Trust in Austin, and For Oak Cliff in Dallas.
We have to work together to expand and diversify our food distribution networks that rely on canned goods and industrialized food that was prepared only with economic efficiency or emergency support in mind — and not the long-term well-being of the people being served.
With rising food costs and threats to the supply chain, it’s up to private sector healthcare providers and community organizations to create innovative ways to get new kinds of food to people for whom proper nutrition can be lifesaving.
More than 10 states have programs to offset or cover the costs of medically tailored meals like what we offer through Cultura Cuisine, but we think it’s only a matter of time before more healthcare organizations and insurers see the financial, cultural and societal value in these kinds of meals that can, quite literally, save lives.
For more information about The Cook’s Nook, go to cooksnook.net.