Students participating in UMass Chan Medical School’s Food4Thought program partnered with Community Healthlink to provide a nutrition program with cooking demonstrations and mindfulness lessons at two residential programs for people with serious mental illness in Worcester.
The Food4Thought program is a student-led, community-based initiative of the UMass MIND Community Intervention Program. The program launched in 2021, hosting virtual meal sessions in coordination with the Genesis Club, a nonprofit recovery group serving greater Worcester.
The Food4Thought program is under the direction of Xiaoduo Fan, MD, MPH, professor of psychiatry, and was conceptualized by medical students Amy Cheung, Marko Stojczewski, and Pooja Dutta, and psychiatry resident Yumi Kovic, MD, MPH.
“Food4Thought is really about working with the community, hearing their voices and having them be involved and represented in building this program,” Cheung said. “And now the big next step is getting into a group living environment where there are people with mental illness or substance use disorders and really trying to see if that can be a way to promote nutrition, but also a way to promote a healthy lifestyle.”
“The goal of the program is to help reduce cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and those types of conditions that people live with that can be affected by their daily food choices,” Cheung said.
This spring, students in the Food4Thought program will provide cooking and education modules at Community Healthlink’s Green House and Granite Street House, group homes for people with a history of mental illness or co-occurring substance abuse.
“Some of the module topics include how to eat healthy on a budget. Right now, the cost of food is high and it’s hard to find healthy affordable food if you shop specifically at pantries or thrift stores,” said Lauren Shumate, MD/PhD student and director of the Food4Thought program. “However, it is possible to eat healthy and shop at these places, and we will show them strategies for saving money and still eating healthy.”
The program consists of eight sessions over a period of four to eight weeks. Sessions are designed for open discussion and hands-on cooking experiences and are tailored to the specific participants.
Medical student and module leader Kai-Lou Yue said: “This is a population that is very underserved and they are not used to programs like this coming. It’s exciting that we can do something that they’re interested in being a part of. And in some cases, these people don’t know each other’s names, even though they live in the same building. The fact that we can get them together and cook together and interact is great.”
“We recommend listening to how your body feels before and after eating and being mindful of how your body reacts to food. For example, some foods give you more energy than others. And we’re just having those discussions with the people involved in the modules,” Shumate said.
Approximately two dozen medical students, nursing students, research staff and interns participate in the program. Any medical student can volunteer in a Food4Thought program, sign up for a one-hour shift and attend the healthy eating education or cooking sessions.
Last year, Food4Thought was one of 10 recipients of a grant from the Remillard Family Community Service Fund. The grant is used to fund programs in the community.