Food as Medicine: How Community Summer Sparked a New Club & Course at UNC

Robertson Scholars, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, at Duke University’s Smith Warehouse in Durham, N.C.  

© Copyright 2021 Veasey Conway, All Rights Reserved

Serenity Bennett (UNC ’23) is committed to making food delicious, nutritious, and healing. Her work as co-president of the Culinary Medicine Club at UNC is being applauded for blending nutritional science and the art of cooking as a way for students and community members to see food as medicine.

The idea for the group came after Serenity spent her Community Summer interning at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine in New Orleans. “I worked alongside leaders of the center, including physicians and nutritionists, to co-lead virtual cooking demonstrations that taught community members how to plan, shop and cook nutritious food. I also contributed to the development of food insecurity and medically tailored meals modules for use by medical schools nationwide in their culinary medicine electives. If it wasn’t for this Robertson experience, I never would have discovered my passion for culinary medicine.”

Now, the Culinary Medicine Club hosts workshops, dinners, and cooking demonstrations for members of the Chapel Hill community teaching others how to live healthier lives. “After interning with Goldring, I felt that Chapel Hill would benefit from a similar program. I asked 2 of my peers to join me in developing the club. My roommate (a Morehead-Cain Scholar) is a food studies major and really enjoys developing recipes. Another friend I met in a pre-med fraternity, and we discussed our mutual passion for the use of food as medicine,” she shared.

Starting the club during a pandemic wasn’t easy. Serenity and her roommate, approached Dr. Alice Ammerman in the Gillings School of Public Health to help them build and advise the group. Serenity, and her co-founders Bailey Benson, Maliha Bhuiyan along with Dr. Ammerman collaborated to craft the mission of the club, the constitution and the bylaws – officially registering the group in April 2021. “We began with virtual educational general body meetings and taught our members basic nutrition information and how to make a grocery list. We also held a virtual cooking demonstration with Dr. Shemer (a biology professor) who is from Israel and taught participants how to make hummus and falafels. As public health improved we began doing more in person events such as cooking for the families at the SECU House. We do this free of charge and cook for about 70 people.” The club’s work expanded eventually landing a spot at Carrboro’s Farmers Market, where once a month they share knowledge about culinary medicine with the community. Next up for the club? Creating a culinary medicine elective with the UNC School of Medicine for undergraduate and medical students.

The Culinary Medicine Club is also focused on making nutrition accessible, inclusive and affordable. “When we conducted research on culinary medicine, we determined that we wanted to increase the nutritional literacy of the Chapel Hill community and foster a desire to cook. One of our founders is passionate about cooking and developing recipes. We wanted to ensure that recipes could be low cost in order to be accessible. Another member and I were passionate about emphasizing the nutritional quality of ethnic foods and embracing diversity. So, we worked to ensure our cooking workshops would allow members to express their own cultural identities.” 

For Serenity being a founding member of the club is a way to put transformational leadership into action – contributing to the communities around her, “To me transformational leadership is when a leader looks beyond themselves to make sustainable change for communities and within systems. I attempted to embody this when starting this club through evaluating the need in the Chapel Hill community. I noticed there was a need to support people who had family members at UNC hospitals. Many students on campus were struggling with food insecurity and didn’t know how to cook the food they could access. There is an increasing overreliance on medicine to achieve wellness instead of using food. These are all issues derived from needs for transformational structural changes. I hope that this club will continue serving this purpose in years to come.”