Free cooking classes help Fort Wayne families fight obesity and health challenges

When Ruth-Anne Rigby heard about the Our HEALing Kitchen cooking class, she thought it would be a good opportunity to hone her meal preparation skills for herself and her family. What she has found in the first few weeks of the class is that it is so much more than that.

“Everyone is friendly here,” Rigby says. “You make new friends, and now they’re like a family away from family.” Ruth-Anne Rigby and her 18-month-old daughter waiting for class to start at The Shepherd’s Hand Community Outreach Center.

Rigby, her grandfather, and her 18-month-old daughter started attending the cooking class at The Shepherd’s Hand Community Outreach Center at 1231 S. Anthony Blvd. in Fort Wayne at the beginning of October. Each week, the free two-hour class starts with a guided lesson created by Parkview Health dietitians. Next, they move on to a hands-on activity that ends with a giveaway of a healthy food item. Then they head to the kitchen to work through that week’s healthy recipe and actually cook it. The final step is sitting down together as a class to eat what they have created.

The Shepherd’s Hand is one of 14 organizations hosting Our HEALing Kitchen cooking classes this year. The classes are made possible by grants from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, in partnership with Parkview Health, and they are designed to provide a multitude of benefits to the Fort Wayne community, from food access to preventative healthcare to economic stability.

Michelle Bojrab-Wray, Lead Community Outreach Dietitian at Parkview Health, and Kathy Wehrle, Community Nutrition Consultant, co-wrote the class curriculum. St. Joe Foundation helped design and produce the teaching materials and participant guides for easy reference and access to recipes.

On the most fundamental level, the classes increase access to nutritious food and awareness about the importance of healthy eating.

“Nothing has such a profound effect as what we put in our bodies,” Wehrle says. “How you perform, how you think, how you feel day-to-day is tied to your health habits in a really concrete way.”

Kim Trombley announces the name of the winner of a healthy food item giveaway during the Our HEALing Kitchen class at Shepherd’s Hand.

Not only do the cooking classes help participants reflect on their health individually, but also, programs like these could help reduce the economic drain on the healthcare system caused by widespread chronic disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 90 percent of $3.8 trillion in annual healthcare expenditures in the U.S. are for people with chronic and mental health conditions. When you break it down, heart disease and stroke account for $214 billion, diabetes makes up $327 billion, and obesity costs the U.S. healthcare system $147 billion each year.

“As we see chronic disease on the rise, one of the biggest factors in all of those chronic diseases is diet,” says Bojrab-Wray. “The way we eat can improve our overall well-being and future of our health.”

Childhood obesity, in particular, has been an issue in the U.S. for decades and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a new report by the CDC, the rate of body mass index increase nearly doubled in children ages 2-19 during the peak of the pandemic. The CDC cited disrupted routines, school closures, decreased opportunities for physical activity, and improper nutrition as possible causes.

Bojrab-Wray hopes children and their parents acquire healthier eating habits through the Our HEALing Kitchen cooking classes, so they can avoid bigger health issues later in life.

“Healthy kids now equals a healthy future for all of us,” Bojrab-Wray says. “Research has shown time and time again the benefits of making sure a child is well-nourished, especially in the first thousand days of life. It makes the biggest impact in their overall health.”

Participants cut carrots at the Our HEALing Kitchen class at Shepherd’s Hand.

Mary Tyndall, who oversees the St. Joe Foundation’s nutritional programming relationships, confirms this trend from the CDC on the local level. She also points out that research from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that during the pandemic, preexisting disparities in obesity also widened in terms of race and ethnicity, insurance, and neighborhood socioeconomic status.

As such, Meg Distler, Executive Director of St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, says an important focus of the Our HEALing Kitchen classes is serving people in lower-income neighborhoods facing access barriers to grocery stores and nutritious produce. The curriculum teaches participants practical tips for grocery shopping on a budget, particularly in areas where access to fresh, healthy food is limited.

“Our goal is to have everyone in the community have access to healthy food and to have the opportunity to know how to make affordable, delicious, and healthy meals an easier part of their lifestyles,” Distler says.

Kim Trombley works with class participant Kalisha Doty as they cut apples ahead of the Our HEALing Kitchen class at Shepherd’s Hand.

Our HEALing Kitchen cooking classes are offered at several youth-focused organizations, like the YMCA and Fort Wayne Community Schools, as well as organizations, like Shepherd’s Hand, which are open to people of all ages. Kim Trombley, Executive Director at Shepherd’s Hand, facilitates the cooking class there, as a Christian-based organization providing health, education, and life wellness services for adults and children. Trombley says the classes are a great way to teach people how to cook affordable meals using healthy ingredients, while also giving them a safe space to expand their palette.

“It takes away the barriers of the unknown,” Trombley says. “It exposes you to things that you might not pick up on your own at the grocery store. But being able to see what you can do with it and then to taste it in an environment that’s not threatening, that’s really open and welcoming. I think that is really important.”

As a participant, Ruth-Anne Rigby hopes her own daughter and family can enjoy a healthier future, and the cooking classes at The Shepherd’s Hand have helped them take the first step.

“(My daughter) has a weight problem,” Rigby says. “She struggles to gain weight, so the more she eats, the better she’s getting. Trying new things and seeing more people at this class has been helping her.”

Learn more

For more information about the Our HEALing Kitchen classes, visit St. Joseph Community Health Foundation’s website.