“FASS” forward to a healthier future

Pickin Produce: (left to right) Chef Laura Pole and  VCE Master Food Volunteers AlMena Hughes and Tracey Giordano examining produce at a local market.
Pickin Produce: (left to right) Chef Laura Pole and VCE Master Food Volunteers AlMena Hughes and Tracey Giordano examining produce at a local market.

While much of America celebrated Black History during February, one group also explored African heritage as a path to better health in the future. On February 24,12 enthusiastic participants from local churches and organizations began a cooking and cultural curriculum based on the premise that inherently healthy foods are common among people in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the American South. During the next few weeks, the classmates will learn to use those foods, and to incorporate elements of African heritage, to enhance healthier living. The sessions will be held in space donated at its facility by New Horizons Healthcare, Roanoke.

Tracey Giordano, a Master Food Volunteer with Virginia Cooperative Extension and a co-presenter in a collaboration among several organizations bringing the curriculum to Roanoke, led an overview of The African-Heritage Diet Pyramid, which is not a diet, but rather a lifestyle. The pyramid, developed by the health and nutrition education organization, Oldways, recommends basing every meal on greens, grains, beans and peas, vegetables, nuts and fruits. Fish and seafood; eggs, poultry and meats; dairy and even sweets can be eaten in moderation.

Giordano addressed a bane of many otherwise healthful meals: sodium. It’s hiding everywhere, the participants confirmed by reading various product labels. It can be reduced, Giordano suggested, by cooking from scratch whenever possible, by using frozen instead of canned products and by rinsing the liquid off canned goods and draining them before consuming.

Chef Laura Pole preparing African Heritage Spicy Chickpeas and Jollof Rice in the New Horizons Healthcare kitchen.
Chef Laura Pole preparing African Heritage Spicy Chickpeas and Jollof Rice in the New Horizons Healthcare kitchen.

Laura Pole is a registered nurse and health-supportive chef. She’s also a talented musician who before beginning her presentation strapped on her guitar and led the group in a song called Woyaya, popularized by the Ghanaian/Caribbean musical group, Osibisa, in the 1970s. Participants also earlier learned a Swahili greeting, “Jambo,” which means hello.

Pole demonstrated a formula for building flavors so full, a lot of salt is unnecessary. “FASS stands for using the right amount of fat, acid, salt and sweet to build the flavor in a dish,” Pole said. Examples of fats are Extra Virgin Olive Oil, unrefined coconut oil and nut oils. Acids include lemon juice, lime juice or good-quality vinegars.Sweets might be organic maple syrups, fruits or fruit jams. Salt is salt. However Giordano had earlier pointed out lower-sodium versions of salt are available and one participant said he uses Himalayan pink sea salt, which claims to provide additional minerals and help lower blood pressure.

“Start with a good recipe, use quality ingredients and build FASS,” Pole said. “What you get is delicious, and that is one of the most important principles of health-supportive cooking.” She demonstrated how to use fresh herbs and spices, such as ginger, allspice and curry to create interesting new food profiles. She showed qualities to look for in beautiful produce supplied by Produce Source Partners, Roanoke. She saved any unused portions to be used in making vegetable stock.

Pole had earlier prepared a black bean hummus served with crisp raw vegetables. By the time she finished building the flavors in a Spicy Chickpeas stew and a Jollof rice, everyone was more than ready for samples.

But first came another important component of a healthy lifestyle: physical activity. Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Deb Chappel led the group in light stretching exercises. She encouraged them to consider forming teams and signing up for FitEx, a wellness program that begins on March 17. Exercise is more fun and you’re more likely to do it as part of a team, Chappel said. Details on how to participate in FitEx are at www.fit-ex.org.

Fellowship makes meals even more pleasurable. Everyone wrapped up their first evening together sharing delicious food and lively conversation. It is planned the participants will take the information they learn back to their respective churches and communities and train a broader audience.

In an effort to help spread the word about African heritage in a healthful diet, The Roanoke Tribune will feature weekly snippets from the sessions on the website at www.theroanoketribune.org.