As we prepare to celebrate with friends and family at the Thanksgiving table, we’re mindful of how the food we eat and serve is medicine for the body and soul — essential to our health and well-being. But choosing what is served on our plate can be an overwhelming challenge for many. More than 10 percent of U.S. households are food insecure and confront daunting hurdles to securing healthy, nutritious food for themselves and their family members. Some live in “food deserts” where there are no grocery stores nearby or they may lack transportation to get to a store. In many cases, the family budget doesn’t stretch far enough. With inflation driving up the price of staples such as fresh produce or meat, the struggle is particularly acute.
Community Health Centers are all too aware that food insecurity is a social driver of health, and many are finding innovative ways to address it beyond the walls of the exam room. A case in point is HOPE Clinic, in Houston, Texas. This health center runs an initiative called Bite of HOPE that brings culinary medicine to a whole new level.
HOPE Clinic launched the Bite of HOPE initiative in 2019, the program was born out of the community’s need to understand the importance of food over health.
“Bite of HOPE’s vision is to be a catalyst of health beyond the clinic’s walls and change the food environment in Houston. Bite of HOPE wants to educate, inspire and empower children, families, and engage communities to develop lifelong healthy eating habits,” explains HOPE clinic CEO, Dr. Andrea Caracostis. “This collaborative initiative, that integrates culinary into clinical care, was designed to reverse chronic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and heart and lung disease and its long-term dire projections; and reframe the way communities connect to food by making a healthy diet accessible to everyone.”
Driving the program is the inspiration and energy of Chef Chris Lott. His work at Bite of HOPE — the cooking classes, nutrition counseling, recipes, and innovative partnerships — showcases how simple, cost-effective, and tasty meals are possible, even among families whose pantry options are limited.
“One of the big programs at Bite of HOPE is an after-school nutrition program for kids and online programs for parents. We show them simple ways they can make nutritious, healthy recipes,” said Lott. “We try to make it as easy as possible to use ingredients that they already have in their pantry, because many of our patients live in food deserts. For instance, if they have cans of vegetables or fruit in their cupboard, we show them how rinse out the vegetables to cut down on sodium, or to leave the syrup behind in cans of fruit. People want to learn. They want to eat healthy, but don’t have the right tools or don’t simply understand the science behind food.”
Lott earned his stripes as an army veteran and pursued a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas after military service. He brings to Bite of HOPE a passionate commitment to reducing diet-related health inequities and disease outcomes and the heart of his mantra is “Know what you’re eating and where it came from.”
“I love this job because as a chef it helps me think a bit more about how to create healthy dishes, such as using honey or stevia or whole grain flours or quinoa in recipes to offset carbs or sugar without taking away the taste,” he said.
In addition to cooking and nutrition classes Bite of HOPE has a host of other initiatives aimed at empowering patients. There is a Walk With a Doc program for patients to walk with their doctor, have an information conversation and get in their steps, after which Chef Lott presents them with a snack. “Another program is Food RX, which is for people who have a certain A1C level. They receive a prescription from the doctor for healthy foods and are connected a food pantry that the Hope Clinic is partnered with and I show them how to use their ingredients to eat healthy.”
Bite of HOPE also has a partnership with BakerRipley’s Small Business Program to provide participants with the tools they need to start or grow a food business. Through one-on-one meetings with industry experts, the program offers mentoring support to launch their own food business with healthy ingredients. Participants meet with Chef Lott to review recipes, menus, sourcing options, and learn about the business opportunities in the surrounding community.
Bite of HOPE is not only expanding its reach to the Houston community, the program also has a growing repository of healthy and diverse recipes on its website that you can view here.