On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Glenn Mack, executive director of Northwest Arkansas Community College’s newly revamped culinary program, found himself in New Orleans conducting “food research.”
But instead of nabbing a table at a hot new restaurant or seeking out a tried-and-true po’boy shop, he landed in a 4,600-SF teaching kitchen. The class assignment-slash-menu: Greek salad, hummus sandwiches, meatless chili and whole wheat rolls with a spinach and avocado spread.
Stranger still, the longtime culinary educator was not there to teach, but to learn.
“The food was delicious,” Mack recalled. “It proved that healthy cooking is not flavorless, it’s not boring, it’s not difficult.”
All three lessons were delivered at a class at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University, and Mack’s attendance was a first step toward implementing the first-of-its-kind culinary medicine program at NWACC.
It’s been three years since the Goldring Center was first launched at the Tulane University School of Medicine, with the ultimate goal of teaching future physicians to eat and cook healthfully so that they in turn can help their patients make better food choices. The underlying dietary philosophy of the curriculum aligns with a Mediterranean-style diet, one that emphasizes plant-based foods, whole grains, legumes and nuts, along with fish and poultry.
“If you are training medical professionals by actually preparing and analyzing food together, not just pulling nutritional facts from a textbook, the information becomes real and transferrable,” Mack said. “Then, rather than simply giving patients rote advice about eating fewer calories and cutting out trans fats, for instance, medical practitioners will be better positioned to advise their patients on how to prepare a variety of foods and eat well.”
So far the program is proving to be anything but a flash in the pan. To date, 18 medical schools across the country and three residency programs have licensed the curriculum from the Goldring Center.
For its part, NWACC is the first community college licensee, and while technically it’s the school’s nursing program that has the agreement with the Goldring Center, the curriculum’s implementation will be a true partnership between the college’s nursing school and its culinary program. So that boils down to three “firsts” for the curriculum: the first nursing school, the first community college and the first nursing school/culinary school co-implementation.
A Push to Expand
While the nursing school signed on the dotted line with the Goldring Center to license the program, the idea for the initiative was hatched on the culinary side of things and is part of a much larger push to expand the college’s culinary program. It was back in 2013 that NWACC brought Karp Resources, a New York-based food and agriculture consultancy, on board to produce a long-range strategic plan for its culinary program. Since then, several components of the plan have either come to fruition or are well underway thanks in large part to a $15 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
For instance, the program, once known as the “NWACC Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management” program was recently renamed “Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food” as part of a larger rebranding effort directed by Fayetteville’s BLKBOXLabs.
This year, the program is slated to move into 27,500 SF of renovated space in the former Tyson Foods plant on Southeast Eighth Street in the expanding southeast corner of downtown Bentonville. Plus, this past summer, Mack — a native Arkansan with a two-decades long career in culinary education, one which has taken him to areas as far flung as China, Italy, Russia and Uzbekistan — took on his position after a nationwide search to fill the slot.
But perhaps the biggest driver in the program’s evolution is its effort to broaden its focus to include new spheres of culinary education, including artisanal food and beverage management, food entrepreneurship and culinary nutrition. The latter being where the culinary medicine curriculum comes into play.
“We’re priding ourselves on being innovative and forward-looking,” Mack said. “And this is one way to do it, to work with the best in culinary medicine. I anticipate that it is really going to become one of the pillars of the school.”
Mack says the curriculum will be launched as early as this summer, whether or not Brightwater’s new facility is completed. But because the NWACC-licensed curriculum is new territory for the Goldring Center, details on exactly how it will be implemented are still being ironed out, he says. Along with Mack and Mary Ross, dean of NWACC’s Division of Health Professions, one instructor from Brightwater and two instructors from the college’s nursing program will work closely with the Goldring Center to develop the curriculum. Once the curriculum is up and running, the three instructors will co-teach the classes.
“I think the challenge [in developing the curriculum for NWACC] is that we’re talking about a group of students in an undergraduate associates program versus medical students who already have a four-year degree,” said Dr. Timothy Harlan, an internist and assistant professor of medicine at the Goldring Center, who first developed the program at Tulane. “The level of discussion will have to be adjusted somewhat, especially with respect to the level of the basic science. Undergraduates don’t generally get the detail of physiology, biochemistry and the like that medical students get.”
Cooking Up Culinary Medicine
To date, at the Goldring Center, first- and second-year medical students take a class or “module” that focuses on an overview of the Mediterranean diet. However, Harlan says additional classes are currently under development for third- and fourth-year students focused on specific ailments like congestive heart failure, HIV and celiac disease, all of which may play a role in the eventual implementation at NWACC.
However it takes shape, once the program is up and running at NWACC, it will be available as an elective to students enrolled in both the nursing program and at Brightwater.
“Our students will benefit from taking these classes as well,” said Rebecca Liles, the instructor for Brightwater charged with helping to develop and implement the curriculum. “So that when they become the forerunners of the industry, they’ll know how to create a healthy menu that is still appealing to the general public.”
Down the road, Liles said, the curriculum may even evolve into some sort of formalized degree in culinary nutrition at Brightwater.
In addition, NWACC students working toward a general associates degree will be able to take the course as an elective.
But the college’s students are ultimately only one of three customer bases for the curriculum, which also has a continuing education component and a community programming component.
On the continuing education side, it will offer a number of continuing medical education credits for practicing physicians. Popular continuing medical education credits at the Goldring Center include: “Diabetes Mellitus: Carbohydrates and Nutrition” and “Hypertension and Nutrition: Low Sodium Diets and Flavor Building.
“This is a great way regionally to provide a service to the medical community,” Mack said. “Right now a lot of medical professionals have to travel to Dallas or one of the coasts or go to national conventions for these credits.”
In addition, a certification in culinary medicine, a 60-credit curriculum involving a combination of online courses, in-person conferences and in-the-kitchen classes, will be available to the wider medical community, including physicians, physician assistants, pharmacists, registered dieticians and nurse practitioners.
And last, but not least, the curriculum will offer a slew of community programming to the general public, either at low cost or for free. Ross says curriculum instructors plan to work closely with local hospitals and medical practitioners to develop and market the community programing to patients.
The specifics of the community cooking classes are still a work in progress, but most likely, there will be a wide variety of topics covered, including instruction on how to eat a heart-healthy diet, how to cook healthfully for kids and how to cook to manage a specific illness, like diabetes or heart disease. Cooking classes for kids are also a possibility.
The lofty goal of the community programming is to begin to turn the tide on the state’s overall bad bill of health. Indeed, according to the United Health Foundation’s 2015 America’s Health Rankings report, Arkansas is one of the unhealthiest states in America with the highest obesity rate at 36 percent of the population and the fourth-highest number of cardiovascular deaths.
“This is the piece we’re really excited about,” Ross said. “We want to enable patients to go back into their homes and cook meals that are healthy and that will help diminish the disease process, but be able to do so in a way that they’re actually able to enjoy the foods.”