With barriers that include language differences and various required documents, accessing health and wellness care in underserved communities can be fraught with challenges and stigma. As a fellow at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, Thalia Rodriguez has first-hand experience helping people navigate the complexities of the US healthcare system.
But when her mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, Rodriguez felt the hurdles were hit near home.
“A lot of people in the Latinx community joke about not seeing a doctor until they need one, but I never really thought about it until then,” said Rodriguez, a health management student at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Without Medicaid and unable to meet astronomical estimates out of pocket, Rodriguez’s mother was denied the care she needed. Ultimately, a referral from MSU Denver led her to Denver Health, which offers a tiered payment approach.
“It’s still expensive, but I’m so grateful that we can keep her alive and continue her battle with cancer,” Rodriguez said.
This lived reality was the main reason for the creation of Unhurt! En Nuestra Comunidadcreated by Rodriguez and fellow MSU Denver student Ines Calvete Barrios.
Originally a pilot for classroom use, the programme’s series of cooking classes over the summer will focus on traditional recipes using nutritious substitutes – e.g. B. a vegan nacho cheese made with cashews and turmeric — along with a healthy dose of conversations about community wellbeing resources.
“In our household, food is an integral part of family life: we cook together, sit at the table, eat together and talk about our day,” said Calvete Barrios. “And talking about access to health care can be daunting.
“But something we all love is food, so we wanted to create a space where we could discuss both.”
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The duo met at their Reimagine Wellness class, created by the Interdepartmental Institute of Health. The Institute also coordinates Health Scholar Programs such as DACA and the Health Career Opportunities Program Scholarship for Undocumented Students, which provides mentoring and resources for students interested in entering health fields.
The course culminated in a pitch competition sponsored by the Denver Foundation’s Joseph Family Fund, in which Rodriguez and Calvete Barrios’ concept took third place, earning the duo $8,000 in seed capital. Partners in her program also include the Aurora-based La Victoria Healing Kitchen, the Roadrunner Food Pantry, and the university’s Immigrant Services Program.
“It felt good to know what I was putting into my body,” Rodriguez said. “This[experience]really changed the way I look at food.”
Calvete Barrios reiterated the importance of nutrition and access to whole person care. Originally from Colombia, the woman faced challenges navigating the US healthcare system as a previously undocumented immigrant. Despite her family history of multiple cancers, screening panels for her have been limited or unavailable. So she resonated with the concept of “food as medicine” that she had learned from the lifestyle medicine course taught by Michelle Tollefson, MD, Associate Professor of Health Professions.
“There’s a lot of things that I can’t control, so I focus on the things that I can,” said Calvete Barrios, the Spring 2022 winner of the MSU Denver President’s Award Cancer prevention, small changes can make a big difference.”
For Calvete Barrios, the changes include a plant-based Mediterranean diet and significant reductions in meat consumption, as well as culturally informed recipe substitutions. As part of the program launch, Rodriguez and Calvete Barrios consulted with Rachel Sinley, Ph.D., associate professor and associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, to incorporate recipes like black bean flautas with avocado dipping sauce that ditch processed ingredients without the “yummy” factor.
“By using whole-food ingredients, we can mimic the flavor profiles that make our brains light up,” Sinley said.
We’re naturally wired to crave fats, salts and sweets, she added. And as we get used to our eating habits over time, tolerances can develop. In other words, our brains eventually tell us to consume more of these things to trigger our pleasure centers.
She also emphasized the importance of language and how we talk about food. “Dieting” as a construct takes place in larger social contexts, “plant-based” does not automatically equate to being healthy, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to what counts as “healthy.”
“We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of what we enjoy doing,” Sinley said. “But when we are armed with information about what healthy eating means to us individually and in context, we are able to find the right balance that honors the whole person in our communities.”
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For Rodriguez, celebrating food and community is a key ingredient to sustainability and growth Unhurt! En Nuestra Comunidad, something she hopes to do after graduation. Calvete Barrios also plans to use what she learned for her next chapter: earning the MCAT and applying to medical school.
“I’ve been able to incorporate many of these concepts into my own life and change it for the better,” said Calvete Barrios. “Now the question is, ‘How can we use this knowledge to make an even greater positive impact?'”