Eating smarter with diabetes

Charitable kitchen offers UC students a service-learning co-op and a teachable moment

University of Cincinnati graduate students Emily Wieczorkowski and Kenzie Pelfrey run a nutrition class designed to assist individuals with diabetes with healthy eating as part of the Pharmer’s Kitchen program offered at St. Vincent de Paul’s Neyer Outreach Center in downtown Cincinnati. 

The small classes occur monthly in a teaching kitchen complete with ovens, utensils and other necessities and are open to the public.

Anzora Adkins, a retired educator, snacks on a few apples coated with a little whipped peanut butter and nonfat Greek yogurt while learning how to make homemade granola. The snacks are designed to offer a quick burst of energy and nutrition without spiking blood sugar levels.

Kenzie Pelfrey shown with Anzora Adkins at the Pharmer's Kitchen

Kenzie Pelfrey with Anzora Adkins at the Pharmer's Kitchen. Photo/provided

Active in Cincinnati’s Evanston neighborhood, Adkins has been part of the program for the past six months learning how to make healthier snacks and simple meals.

“This is very helpful to me,” says Adkins. “The class makes you conscious about reading food package labels. They’ve studied the ingredients well and adjusted them according to my condition, a person with diabetes. Most of us when we get to a certain age, we will have something we have to pay attention to and monitor.”

Wieczorkowski and Pelfrey are part of a service-learning co-op program managed by the newly established UC College of Cooperative Education and Professional Studies that connects nonprofit organizations with students to promote experience-based education.

Wieczorkowski and Pelfrey are recent dietetics graduates who are now working on their master’s degrees in nutrition at UC. Monica Chen, also a UC co-op graduate student, was on hand to learn from Wieczowski and Pelfrey so that she can at some point lead the nutrition class.

Pelfrey says the Pharmer’s Kitchen program was developed by staff at St. Vincent de Paul after seeing a growing number of diabetic clients seek costly medications through St. Vincent’s pharmacy program, which provides prescriptions free of charge.

Volunteer Robin Ceddia joins UC students Emily  Wieczorkowski, Monica Chea and Kenzie Pelfrey for a potrait at the Pharmer's Kichten.

Volunteer Robin Ceddia joins UC students Emily Wieczorkowski, Monica Chea and Kenzie Pelfrey at the Pharmer's Kitchen. Photo/provided

Their hope was to reduce the amount of medication needed by changing behaviors and lifestyles.

The teaching program started in May and now consists of bi-monthly classes which may offer recipes for either breakfast, lunch, snack time or dinner. 

The students offer nutrition education along with hands-on methods for preparing meals or snacks that address the levels of carbohydrates and saturated fats that are consumed. They discuss food content by teaching participants to read nutrition labels. They also discuss A1C levels, which are an indication of blood sugar over a three-month period.

“If they are eating carbohydrates in their diet within a healthy range their blood sugars won’t be as high, and they wouldn’t have to use as much insulin. That can help patients in the long run lower their A1C levels,” says Wieczorkowski.

“Diet and lifestyle changes are one of two primary interventions for Type 2 diabetes.”

Emily Wieczorkowski with Anzora Adkins and Robin Ceddia at the Pharmer's Kichten

Emily Wieczorkowski with Anzora Adkins and Robin Ceddia at the Pharmer's Kitchen. Photo/provided

A special curriculum including recipes and nutritional information was created for Spanish-speaking residents in the area. “The recipes in the Spanish-speaking curriculum are not technically like traditional cuisine, but rather more inspired by the flavors of the culture,” says Wieczorkowski.

The classes were piloted during the summer. Translators help teach the Spanish-language classes.

“There were so many things we had to keep in mind,” says Pelfrey. “Are these recipes realistic and they need to be cost effective. We don’t want some extravagant dish. They’re not like a culinary masterpiece, but they are simple, and it has the right flavors and can be made in abundance. If someone is only shopping in our food pantry, a lot of our recipes can be made with items found right there.”

The pharmacy at St. Vincent de Paul is keeping track of the A1C levels over time to see if anyone’s blood sugar levels are improving. 

The service-learning co-op will enable students to make informed decisions about their career path.

Paula Harper Assistant director of UC's service-learning co-op program

Research from other teaching kitchens, who aren’t doing the hands-on-training but just nutrition education, found that an increased number of patients lowered their A1C levels, says Pelfrey.

“Our hope is we are combining two approaches, nutrition education and training in the kitchen, and it will make a difference.”

Paula Harper, assistant director of the service-learning co-op program at UC, says the Pharmer’s Kitchen is one of several examples of the university partnering with nonprofit organizations to allow students to gain career-relevant experience while they are still in school.

These co-op experiences are open to all students, but they’ve been especially valuable for students in majors such as the arts and sciences, education and health sciences that don’t require cooperative education.

Career options can also be less well-defined for these undergraduates, making it even more important for them to be exposed to work roles in their chosen field, says Harper.

Funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and from Co-op 2.0, along with collaborations from the Work Study program helped create the first service-learning co-op experiences in the spring of 2019.

“The service-learning co-op will enable students to make informed decisions about their career path,” says Harper. “It gives students a chance to determine if this is what they want to do with their future.”

Featured image of Emily Wieczorkowski at the Pharmer's Kitchen.  Photo provided.

Beyond the Classroom

UC invented cooperative education more than 100 years ago, and we continue to innovate all aspects of experience-based learning, including internships, service learning, virtual co-ops, community projects and industry partnerships. Learn more.

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