MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Nutrition Hub at Church Health was designed to be a gathering place, pretty much like the kitchen in any home.
On Oct. 21, knots of cooks were huddled amid cooktops and countertops, tasting greens and spaghetti sauces, and making value judgments that transcend mere right and wrong.
These were church people, learning in Church Health’s Feed the Flock program how to cut the fat and up the veggies and spices in the thousands of meals served each week in area church kitchens.
“This is what we call standard American spaghetti,” said Kimberly Boone, a registered dietitian. “It has white noodles, and it’s made with 80/20 beef.
“Now, let’s turn over the reveals,” she said, as heads nodded and interest piqued when two healthier spaghetti sauce ingredients came into view.
“The better sauce on the left has less meat, but we amped up the flavor with seasoning, and we added more vegetables, specifically mushrooms because they have umami,” she said.
Throughout the morning, church cooks tasted versions of Southern comfort staples labeled “good,” ”better” and “best,” and then began making their own ingredient alterations to classics like banana pudding, fried chicken and rich barbecue sauces.
By 11:30 a.m., they were ready to march into their institutional kitchens and roll out some change.
“We’ve already cut the meat out of the green beans on Wednesday nights,” said Tameka Wilkerson, in charge of vegan offerings and special meals at Brown Missionary Baptist Church, which easily has 12,000 members.
“If we do fried chicken, we’ll make sure we have baked chicken too,” she said. “We’ll be using more natural sweets. Instead of sugar, we can use beets. We’ll put labels on the vegan and vegetarian items.”
The idea, she said, and Church Health concurs, is that once people realize vegetarian options taste good and have health benefits, others will follow.
For months, Church Health has planned the rollout of Feed the Flock by first surveying church cooks, then gathering focus groups and fine-tuning recipes.
“Dr. (Scott) Morris always says that the worst meal you are going to eat all week is probably at church,” Rachel Davis, Church Health’s director of faith and health programs laughed, referencing the nonprofit’s founder.
“It’s a beautiful fellowship opportunity, but unfortunately, we are feeding ourselves things that make the members of our faith community not as healthy as they could be,” she said.
With diseases like hypertension and diabetes that have such links to diet in Memphis, Davis said, the work has significant health benefits.
“While we are known for our clinical services, one of the key reasons we have church in our name is because our mission is caring for bodies and spiritual health,” she said.
But Church Health also knows that to roll out menus of chickpeas and kale would be a disaster. So it collected cherished church comfort recipes, including macaroni and cheese, and then came up with three takes on the same recipe, with incremental nutritional improvements in each.
It also conducted the nutrition analysis on each recipe — replacing bacon in greens with a dried smoked pepper, for instance, saves 900 milligrams of sodium — offered ways to sell the improvements to the pastor and suggested novel strategies for staging church kitchen tasting dinners.
Each participant received a packet of materials, including recipes.
The session began with a panel discussion, then broke into smaller groups for the recipe work and samplings so there was plenty of time for back and forth with the experts and each other.
“I was impressed with how open they were,” said Symone Johnson, culinary medicine specialist at Church Health.
“They knew exactly how to make the recipes better. And they knew what their congregations would like and that even if they made small changes, they’d be making a difference.”
Late last week, 15 churches or faith projects had registered for the class. When it began, seven more had enrolled for the free session. It generated such positive comments, Church Health is now considering ways to expand.
“We’re toying with adding more sessions on specifics,” said Melissa Peterson, operations manager for the Nutrition Hub.
Sharon and David Mullins run Team Laeth, a meal program for homeless people, which they cook and manage out of First United Methodist Church.
The challenge is providing the well-seasoned food Sharon is used to cooking, but with less salt.
“They say they like our food the best because it’s seasoned, and we also put salt and pepper shakers on the tables,” David Mullins said. “The other groups that are providing meals don’t do that.”
Sharon left the class thinking she can contribute to the health of people whose lives are already endangered by homelessness by learning new ways to season food, including using salt substitutes.
Thinking of church kitchens and church cooks as change agents was not on anyone’s radar, Davis said.
“It’s a church setting. I think the biggest issue is keeping the cost of the food as low as possible,” she said.
Replacing some or all of the meat in spaghetti sauce with lentils, for instance, not only knocked the price per serving down significantly but also cut 100 calories, a fact she thinks churches can expand on with holistic ministries.
She also noted that none of the recipes included bread or breading.
“It’s cheap. It’s what people are used to and it’s easy,” she said. “But the challenge is that carbohydrates in the body process as sugar. If you are diabetic, it is just as bad for you as eating something that is all sugar.”
Johnson was doing a little math in her head as the participants were leaving Church Health in the Crosstown Concourse.
“These people have a lot of power to make changes,” she said. “If one voice can reach a million people, think what 22 can do.”