Advertisement
  1. Health

Tampa moms learn a new take on heritage and health

Cassandra Hector, center, leads a group of parents in cooking during a class at the Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center on Jan. 30 in Tampa. It’s part of a series of classes in West Tampa aimed at helping parents make meals at home using the same healthy principles that govern meals children get at the center.
Published Feb. 6, 2014

TAMPA

Meeting one recent evening at their children's day care center, a group of young West Tampa moms was asked what they like to cook and eat at home.

Their answers conjured up visions of Sunday dinner throughout the South: crispy pork chops, fried chicken, baked fish, collard greens, pork and beans, green beans seasoned with ham, white rice and gravy, macaroni and cheese, broccoli and cheese, mashed potatoes, pasta, potato salad and corn bread.

Delicious food, imbued with warm memories of family for this group of African-American moms.

But not, Cassandra Hector told her students, the health-giving foods that their ancestors enjoyed.

"These are the foods that our forefathers ate," she said of the whole grains, greens, beans, plantains, pumpkin and sweet potatoes that populate the recipes she was there to demonstrate.

"Foods can hinder health and foods can heal, too," said the tall, slender woman in the distinctive tones of her English upbringing. "These classes will be about reclaiming your health."

Armed with her nutrition know-how, culinary skills, and a warm, energetic style, Hector delivered a different message of how food can convey culture, flavor and love.

Her lessons have meaning for all Americans interested in good health and good food, especially as obesity, diabetes and heart disease continue to be among the nation's top health problems. But African-Americans are particularly prone to these health conditions, and all are aggravated by the high-fat, high-salt foods her students love.

Hector, whose family hails from St. Lucia in the Caribbean, is the nutrition coordinator for Cornerstone Family Ministries, a Christian nonprofit helping disadvantaged children and families around Tampa Bay. On a recent rainy night, Hector began a series of six classes at the Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center in West Tampa aimed at helping parents make meals at home using the same healthy principles that govern meals children get at the center.

"We can't stop with just teaching our children these lessons at the centers," said Hector, "we want to link it also to home and connect with parents."

The classes, supported by the Florida Blue Foundation, follow a program called A Taste of African American Heritage. Developed by the nonprofit group Oldways, its mission is to improve health while preserving culinary traditions from the southern United States, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.

Dressed in a white chef's coat and jeans, Hector brought along her son, Yimika, 9, who helped his mom show that kids really can enjoy preparing and eating healthy food.

She told her students she would emphasize traditional spices, herbs and healthful oils instead of salt and animal fat to flavor foods. "They have phenomenal benefits and we'll show how to use them in your cooking."

Nine moms, crowded round the center's toddler-size tables, were offered warm plates of West African Jollof rice, a dish none had ever heard of, with a key ingredient most had never tried.

AeQunia Diggs, 23, said she probably never would have tried brown rice outside this class. Hector asked her why. "Because it's brown," said the mother of two young children. "Rice is supposed to be white."

But the addition of chopped tomatoes and tomato paste made it more familiar. "It smells like spaghetti," said Diggs, who also liked the cabbage in the dish and gave it a thumbs-up.

Then the class moved into a tiny kitchen where everyone was put to work chopping, sauteing, measuring and stirring a spicy chickpea dish. Though it can be made with canned chickpeas, Hector told the class she soaked dry chickpeas overnight — yielding lower-sodium, less-expensive beans.

The aromas in the kitchen were enticing, but not what most were accustomed to. Flavored with cilantro, curry powder, fresh ginger and allspice, this dish, too, won the crowd's approval. Still, the moms and Times journalists all agreed it could have used just a touch of salt and a bit less heat from the red pepper flakes that Hector favors.

But as Hector noted, changing tastes and habits is a gradual process of incorporating small steps.

Everyone went home with a handbook of African cuisine history, recipes and nutrition information, as well as small packets of spices they will be asked to cook with, including harissa, cumin, coriander, caraway and Ethiopian berbere, a fragrant mixture that includes allspice, paprika, ginger, cardamom and garlic.

Each participant was weighed, measured, and had blood pressure taken so organizers will be able to see whether the classes will have a positive impact on their health. As women everywhere do, all of the moms remarked about their weight, especially their pre-pregnancy numbers, though none appeared heavy.

While the crowd was generally receptive, one idea — meatless meals — didn't go over well.

"No way!'' several women groaned when Hector suggested that the chickpeas and brown rice could be a complete meal.

But health educators like Hector are the optimistic sort. And in just one class, she had her students thinking they could spring brown rice on their families and give the salt shaker a rest. Maybe a meatless meal is just the next step.

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@tampabay.com.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Taylor Bland-Ball, 22, posted this photo and open letter to Judge Thomas Palermo to her Instagram account on September 10, the day after she lost custody of her 4-year-old son Noah McAdams. The boy's parents wanted to treat his leukemia with natural health care remedies instead of chemotherapy. [Instagram] ANASTASIA DAWSON  |  Instagram
    The couple refused chemotherapy for their son, instead seeking alternative treatments including dietary plans, alkaline water and THC and CBD oil treatments
  2. Sharon Hayes, the new chief executive officer at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, says she will draw on her roots in nursing as she engineers a turnaround for the hospital. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    The city’s largest hospital has suffered setbacks under a corporate owner, but a new leader says it’s time for an infusion of “love and attention.”
  3. An architect's rendering shows part of a planned research center and hospital on N McKinley Drive in Tampa for the Moffitt Cancer Center. During the 2020 legislative session in Tallahassee, the center will seek an increased share of Florida's cigarette tax to finance the McKinley Drive project and other improvements. Moffitt officials said Thursday that the increase initially would finance $205 million, to be paired with $332 million they have already allocated for the project. Moffitt Cancer Center
    Florida lawmakers are the key to unlocking the money, which would pay for more hospital beds and research space.
  4. Ashlynn NesSmith, 16, with her mother, Erin NesSmith, at Thursday's news conference in Tampa about the dangers of vaping. MARLENE SOKOL  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The legislation discussed in Tampa is ‘aimed at saving lives and addressing the current vaping health crisis.’
  5. FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014 file photo, a liquid nicotine solution is poured into a vaping device at a store in New York. In September 2019, U.S. health officials are investigating what might be causing hundreds of serious breathing illnesses in people who use e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. They have identified about 450 possible cases in 33 states, including six deaths. FRANK FRANKLIN II  |  AP
    U.S. health officials have identified about 450 possible cases in 33 states, including six deaths.
  6. The owners of Centurion Compounding of Wesley Chapel have pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to commit health care fraud with the owners of the now-closed Lifecare Pharmacy in St. Petersburg (shown here) and Dr. Anthony Baldizzi of Tierra Verde. Google street view
    Centurion Compounding owners Frank Monte and Kimberly Anderson used profits from the conspiracy to buy real estate and high-end sports cars.
  7. A rendering of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute, which is expected to open in January. School officials said Tuesday the project will cost an additional $16 million. [Courtesy of Strategic Property Partners]
    School trustees asked for a breakdown of expenses before approving the increase.
  8. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks Tuesday at a kickoff in Tampa for a campaign to encourage first responders to seek help if contemplating suicide. Charlie Frago
    Tampa advertising firm ChappellRoberts will partner with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay to encourage police officers, deputies and firefighters to seek anonymous help if they need it.
  9. FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 file photo, kids eat lunch at an elementary school in Paducah, Ky. It is far easier to avoid gaining weight than to lose it, so getting kids to eat well and exercise is crucial. But how to do that effectively is extremely difficult _ and sensitive. ELLEN O'NAN  |  AP
    Obesity is a growing public health issue that nobody is sure how to fix, and around one in five children in the U.S. is considered obese, up from one in seven in 2000.
  10. In April, deputies searched for 3-year-old Noah McAdams, center, who went missing after father Joshua McAdams, 28, left, and mother Taylor Bland-Ball, 22, right, decided to leave the state instead of taking him to his court ordered-cancer treatment. The family was found in Kentucky and now the boy is in the custody of his grandparents, undergoing chemotherapy. The parents recently convinced a judge to let them see their son more often, but the legal fight over how to treat his leukemia continues. [HCSO / Facebook]
    The court found clear and convincing evidence of neglect with the parents who fled the state to keep him from chemotherapy treatments.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement