Children's Hospital of San Antonio cooks up anti-obesity campaign

September 15, 2014

Teaching chefs will use produce fresh from the hospital's garden

Children's Hospital of San Antonio plans to fight obesity by teaching children and families how to prepare healthy meals and by demonstrating firsthand that the freshest ingredients come from the ground, not bags or boxes. The heart of the hospital's program will be a demonstration kitchen and a 2.4-acre garden installed as part of a $145 million reconstruction of the hospital's downtown campus.

Artist's rendering of teaching kitchen
An artist’s rendering of the teaching kitchen that Children’s Hospital is building as part of the $145 million reconstruction of its campus in downtown San Antonio. The hospital is working with the Culinary Institute of America to prepare a program for teaching children and parents how to prepare nutritious meals.

"We want the kids to learn hands-on how easy it is to select good foods and prepare nutritious, tasty meals," said Dr. Mark Gilger, pediatrician-in-chief at Children's Hospital. "We want families to know that healthy eating is cool. And we want to transform the health of the city by aiming at the children."

Children's Hospital is part of the nationwide effort by health organizations to reduce obesity among children and adults. About 17 percent of children and adolescents in America are obese, with higher rates among Hispanic and black youths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child obesity has roughly tripled since the 1980s.

Fresh eats
Gilger said socioeconomic conditions contribute to obesity, with higher rates among low-income children and adults. But he said another major factor is the food people eat — far too much processed and packaged foods.

Unless eating habits change, the future isn't promising. The CDC says that about one-third of all adults are obese. Those numbers also are up sharply.

He said the teaching kitchen and garden are scheduled to open in the fall of 2015, around the time when the much bigger hospital project is to be completed. (The first of the new patient floors is to open this fall.) The garden will be visible through windows from the teaching kitchen, which will offer cooking and nutrition instruction to patients, their families and the general public.

Herbs and vegetables grown in the garden will be used in the cooking classes. The hospital is paying for the culinary program and garden with $5 million of a $20 million grant that the Goldsbury Foundation, a local philanthropy, gave the hospital in 2013, when the hospital announced the transformation of its downtown campus. The foundation's intent was for part of its grant to underwrite a wellness initiative.


Community outreach
Children's Hospital has formed partnerships to create the program, expand its instruction into the community and directly put healthy foods into the grocery baskets of low-income families. It hasn't announced its local partners yet, but the Culinary Institute of America, which has a school in San Antonio, is designing the kitchen and teaching curriculum and will employ the demonstration chef through the grant. H-E-B supermarkets, the largest grocery chain in Texas, is working with the hospital so doctors can write "prescriptions" for produce to participating low-income families. A hospital spokesman said it's not been determined whether the produce will be free or available at a discount with the prescriptions. The hospital, social service agencies, schools and other community organizations will help increase the reach of the cooking curriculum beyond the hospital walls.

Get cooking
Pat Carrier, president and chief executive of CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System, which operates Children's Hospital, said the staff "is committed to providing the children and families of this community with the resources, tools and education they need to live healthier lives while tackling childhood obesity rates."

Deb Kennedy, founder of Build Healthy Kids in Guilford, Conn., said she has been impressed by the collective spirit of the Children's Hospital's initiative. Build Healthy Kids engages with 452 schools nationwide to promote healthy diets. Kennedy is working with the hospital as a consultant for the Culinary Institute and called the teaching kitchen "the heart of the program."

"This is groundbreaking work for a hospital setting," Kennedy said. "People are working together to show people how wonderful and easy it is to make tasty, healthy food. I think the commitment is amazing."

Adam Busby, directory of special projects for the Culinary Institute, also has been working with Children's Hospital to design the kitchen and curriculum. Busby said the idea is to teach by doing — using simple, inexpensive ingredients and showing people how to prepare them in healthy ways.

"Too many people think that cooking is too time-consuming, so there is too much reliance nowadays upon prepared foods and (those) often aren't good foods," Busby said. "We roll up our sleeves and go into the kitchen."

Busby said the institute will hire a teaching chef who is fluent in Spanish to serve the large Hispanic population in San Antonio. He said recipes will be healthier takes on familiar dishes such as refried beans made with olive oil instead of lard and fish tacos made with grilled rather than fried fish.

Busby works from the institute's campus at St. Helena, in California's Napa Valley. He has been a chef in France and once ran two restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Gilger, the doctor, said vegetable garden crops will include tomatoes, vegetables and herbs. There will be shaded outdoor seating to invite people to linger and relax, enjoying flowers and other plantings.

Gilger is part of the staff at Children's Hospital in San Antonio through its partnership with Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, both in Houston. He is vice-chair of pediatrics at Baylor.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.