“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” – John Steinbeck
The Healthy Food Access TRI-Lab’s Food as Medicine Group is starting a cooking program for insulin resistant adolescents to empower them to take control of their health through diet and lifestyle interventions. The group consists of Kelly McGlynn 15’, Blain Anderson ’16, Alexis Berry ’17, and Taylor Viggiano ’17. Kelly is a senior studying Environmental Studies with a focus on food access and public health. Blain is a junior double concentrating in economics and biology and works as the Purchasing Coordinator for Brown Market Shares Program. Alexis is a sophomore concentrating in Public Health and performs research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on the potential role of invariant natural killer T cells in food allergies. Taylor is a Sophomore pursuing an independent concentration on the intersection between food, health, and lifestyle and currently works with dining services to offer cooking classes to the student body!
There are many descriptors you could use to discuss our TRI-Lab Food as Medicine group, and ambitious is certainly one of them. Throughout the fall we worked with our fearless leader, Professor Mary Flynn, helping to teach her “Healing Foods” cooking class for clients of McAuley House congregate meal site who have type 2 diabetes. While relishing the opportunity to engage closely with a community of people seeking to improve access to healthy food, we started to think about a population we were not reaching directly: youth with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. This is a small but quickly growing population, and one that is highly vulnerable to the health risks associated with food insecurity.
We set a goal for our second semester: to design and implement a cooking program for youth between the ages of 10 and 15 that is similar to “Healing Foods”. We hoped that this program could be used as a pilot research study, the results of which could be implemented in larger scale projects. However, as the spring semester unfolded, we found ourselves running up against some pretty hard deadlines. The six-week cooking program we planned would have to start in mid March, which meant we had to start recruiting participants in late February, but we couldn’t recruit until we had official approval from the Internal Review Board, also known as the IRB.
Now, a note about the IRB. The IRB is a necessary institution, for many reasons. As a university we need to ensure that research is done ethically, safely, and responsibly, and the IRB does that. In writing our IRB proposal we thought about a lot of difficult questions and worked out a lot of the kinks that we would otherwise likely have come across during our implementation process. However, it does act as a ball and chain to the creativity and excitement of many researchers. Getting IRB approval is a long, tedious, bureaucratic process that can kill even the most exciting of ideas. Needless to say, we conceded our IRB goals. It was either get the approval and not have time to do the project, or do the project and give up on getting approval. So, now we’re not doing research, technically. We can’t take measurements or write about the project as research. However, we can teach kids valuable lessons about food, health, and cooking, helping pave the way for future research projects. You win some, you lose some.
Currently,the challenge we face is recruiting the adolescents who will be a part of our first class. We know that the classes will be fun and that they will teach participants how to be in better control of their own health, but the important part is whether we can engage these potential participants and demonstrate why this program could change their lives for the better.
As for us, we look forward to continuing to learn through thoughtful engagement. Public health projects are never as simple as the first grand idea, and we are sure there will be more changes to adapt to.