Just What the Doctor Ordered: Area’s first culinary medicine conference coming this September

As a cardiologist, James Fox spends a lot of time trying to help patients understand that the choices in their diet that they make — and have made for years — affect the cardiovascular disease that brings them to his door.

But dietary changes are not always easy, or seemingly palatable.

“One of the biggest things I hear back is, What you want me to do doesn’t taste good,” said Fox, interventional cardiologist and partner at Traverse Heart & Vascular in Traverse City.

That’s part of what he and others involved in planning an upcoming Traverse City culinary medicine conference hope to address. The Sept. 22–24 meeting at the Northwestern Michigan College Great Lakes Culinary Institute aims to equip physicians and other health care practitioners with new knowledge in nutrition, cooking skills, and local food resources to help their patients. The conference is being organized by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and co-hosted by the center, Munson Healthcare, the Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance, and the culinary institute.

“I hope that area physicians and other health practitioners will go away from the conference feeling they’ve found valuable evidence-based information about how they can help their patients stay healthy, or get healthy by eating, preparing, and enjoying healthy locally grown food,” said Diane Conners, Groundwork senior policy specialist. “I hope that these health practitioners will go away excited about the opportunities that they learn that they have for connecting their patients to local food and to resources that have been built in our community.

“And I hope it starts to create more deeply a sense of identity in our region, around farms, food and health.”

The conference meshes with interest and action throughout the Grand Traverse region to, as Groundwork puts it, “connect the dots between health care, wellness and locally grown food.”

For example, two farms and food health conferences in 2014 and 2016, organized by Groundwork and co-hosted by Munson and others, have led to the local spread of ideas like Community Supported Agriculture workplace wellness programs that bring locally grown produce to participating employees, and even a fruit and vegetable “prescription” program. The prescription program, as Traverse City Business News reported in March, launched as a 2016 pilot in Traverse City, and this year is expanding there and into Benzie County.

The culinary medicine event, Conners said, “is the latest outgrowth of many ideas percolating in the community about how can we leverage a sense of place and local food for a community benefit — meeting our health needs.”

While the culinary medicine conference is a first for Traverse City, it has company with others like the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference launched in 2007 by Harvard Medical School and The Culinary Institute of America. The annual gathering at the culinary institute in California’s Napa Valley brings together physicians, registered dietitian nutritionists, nurses and other healthcare professionals and executives, foodservice directors, and chefs. Elements include the latest research on diet, nutrition, and lifestyle choices and their effects on health, plus chef-led demonstrations and kitchen teaching sessions — all with an eye toward healthful cooking, food choices, eating habits and behaviors for attendees to both model and communicate to patients.

Fox, who has several times attended the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference, said it inspired him to explore what could be done in Traverse City. “The seeds … were absolutely planted at that conference,” he said. “Although I’d been sort of pondering something similar, I didn’t have an appreciation of how useful or how powerful the information could be.”

Fox said he and Munson Healthcare clinical dietitian Laura McCain and culinary institute director Fred Laughlin started having conversations about what it would take to have a conference happen and sporadic discussions continued for several years.

McCain said the challenge in pulling together such a conference is that it takes “a fair amount of infrastructure, and coordination with a lot of entities,” as well as funding. And, she said, “If you’re talking about giving education to the medical community — especially the physician community — you’d better be able to pony up with something highly valuable” that is applicable to current patient needs, whether that’s challenges like obesity or diabetes or knowledge about cooking from scratch.

McCain, a registered dietitian and a trained chef who earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts from the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, said culinary medicine is an approach that can give physicians more hope and tools in their ability to help patients. The Traverse City conference will present subjects that physicians can consider and assess how to incorporate into their own practices and patient relationships, she said. The conference can provide a continuing medical education credit for physicians.

The conference agenda on the first day, Friday, includes a keynote speaker discussing the emerging trend of culinary medicine, and a networking reception and familiarization with the culinary institute’s teaching kitchen space, which will house demonstrations and cooking sessions, said conference facilitator Paula Martin, community health coordinator with Taste the Local Difference. Martin is a registered dietitian nutritionist and food and farming consultant with Groundwork.

Saturday’s schedule begins with a morning tour of the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market to learn about supplemental nutrition assistance and food assistance programs offered at the market and to meet with local farmers, followed by a session at the institute on the region’s food security and access to healthy foods — one of the top health issues identified by a Munson Healthcare community health needs assessment.

What comes next in the institute’s teaching kitchens is hands-on: Sessions incorporating basic culinary skills like cutting and chopping; meal preparation following the federal government’s MyPlate dietary guidelines for healthy eating; and cooking and recipes geared toward diabetes, heart health and plant-based diets. Participants will “make food, come back together, and share food,” Martin said. Space is limited in the kitchens and the conference overall, allowing for a maximum attendance of about 60 people.

Said the culinary institute’s Laughlin: “We’re approaching this from the fact that a physician doesn’t want to be a chef or a dietitian. But they want to know how to guide people in proper eating habits and lifestyle.”

The final conference day will include information on community resources to which providers can refer their patients for support, and will feature breakout sessions. Breakout topics include cooking for diabetes prevention and a look at the national Share Our Strength Cooking Matters nutrition program, which is a series of community classes that cover areas including cooking and eating healthy foods, nutrition and food budgeting.

A wrap-up session will feature discussion among participants, chefs, dietitians and farmers, and a farm tour will close out the conference’s agenda.

Conference support includes approximately $70,000 from a multi-faceted $401,513 grant that Munson Healthcare Foundations received from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund (see related story, p. 26), and a $10,000 grant awarded to the Foodshed Alliance by Rotary Charities of Traverse City.

Don Coe, formerly a member and chair of the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development and a current board member of the Foodshed Alliance, said the local community has worked to preserve and support small farms and build local food networks and “it’s a natural extension … that we find a way to make that food a part of our healthcare system. So we’ve provided for an agricultural system, and now we’re linking that to a healthcare system … and providing better food, better health, for our local community.”

Coe, who was on the board of fellows for The Culinary Institute of America and is on the advisory board of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, said he will be involved in bringing participation by farmers and agricultural policy interests to the conference program.

Fox said he hopes the conference will encourage health care providers to not only help patients understand how diet improves health and life but also to model healthy eating themselves.

“I hope it changes their patient interaction and their ability to see how their own health is an important point,” he said. “I want the physicians and the health practitioners who come to the conference, to realize that it’s as much about what they do as what they say.”

Information and a registration link will be available on the Groundwork website, www.groundworkcenter.org.


Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.