Live Chat: Eat Well Exchange

Be ready to get inspired in this live video chat with Sharon and the directors of EatWell Exchange, Ashley Carter and Jasmine Westbrooks, as they discuss creating greater access to healthful, plant-based foods in communities across the country.

I’m so excited to have Ashley Carter, RDN, LDN and Jasmine Westbrooks, MS, RD, LDN on my Live Chat today. Ashley and Jasmine are the founders and directors of EatWell Exchange, based in Miami Gardens, Florida, a nonprofit organization with the primary goal of bridging the gap in health outcomes by guiding communities to make positive lifelong changes while respectfully maintaining their culture. I have been fans of Ashley and Jasmine for a long time now, and as a fellow dietitian, I am just so proud to see the work they are accomplishing in our profession by highlighting the importance of providing greater access to healthful foods in communities around the country. I just simply can’t wait to see what these two will do next, whether it’s speaking to a group of dietitians on how they can promote culturally sensitive diet patterns in their communities, or educating children in a local farm on how to grow your own food and turn it into healthful meals. Ashley and Jasmine are walking the talk!

Listen in on my Live Chat with Ashley and Jasmine here.

Ashley and Jasmine are doing so many great things to provide greater availability for healthful eating in community settings. They provide community outreach and culturally relevant nutrition programs geared towards preventing chronic diseases. They work with communities that are considered food deserts by helping their local gardens gain support in order to increase access to healthier foods in those areas. And EatWell Exchange partners with nonprofits, businesses, organizations, and schools to reach low-socioeconomic populations. To date they have served and educated over 6,500 people! These ladies, who started off as coworkers, bonded together to pursue their passion of preventing and treating chronic disease through nutrition education. Both registered dietitians and community leaders, Jasmine and Ashley created the nonprofit organization EatWell Exchange with the primary goal of guiding communities in making positive lifelong changes while respecting and maintaining their culture. Primarily focused on bridging the gap that exists among those of low socioeconomic status, they understand that lack of knowledge and access to credible resources can be a root. The mission of EatWell Exchange is to decrease rates of preventable morbidity and mortality by modifying dietary practices in low socio-economic areas while still maintaining their culture.

Check out EatWell Exchange’s Resources:

Things You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How Ashley and Jasmine were inspired to create EatWell Exchange.
  • The gaps and barriers that exist in connecting communities to healthful, plant-based foods that honor indigenous and traditional diets.
  • How traditional foods fit into healthful eating patterns.
  • Opportunities that exist to provide greater access to healthful foods that support disease protection and are culturally appropriate.
  • Inspiring stories of success in connecting people with healthful foods in their tradition.
  • How you can get involved and help support greater availability to healthful, disease-fighting food for all people in your communities.

Check out the written transcript of the Live Chat video below.

Interview with Ashley and Jasmine

Q Can you tell us a bit more about Eatwell Exchange and your journey as dietitians?

A Jasmine: When we first started, we just introduced ourselves and then we started to hang out when we both worked at WIC. We noticed this little gap in between access to foods and nutrition education with lower socioeconomic communities, but even beyond that just the focus of culture behind that. As People of Color, we don’t see it often where we are told to eat foods that we grew up on where we have a preference to or that are familiar to us. And we saw that a lot unfortunately between with the client/ patient and WIC care professionals. One day we were out just having a girl’s time and talking about, “Let’s change the world, like we need to change this. Like we can be that example to be that. We can be that dietitian.” Keep in mind, we weren’t even considered dietitians, we were considered nutrition educators. Later on, as we started to really dive into Eatwell Exchange, we noticed that the people we’re serving were actually a lot of the things we went through ourselves and we thought it was normal, but it really wasn’t.

Ashley: My journey in the field of dietetics is really interesting. I can tell you that I became a dietitian in 2019 and I graduated college in 2011, so that shows you that there was a big gap in between me finishing college and becoming a dietitian, just because there were a lot of barriers. Finances was a huge one, I was afraid to do the internship, not because I didn’t think that I could do well, but because I financially felt, “How could I survive 10 months without a paycheck?” So, there were a lot of barriers like that when it comes to being a dietitian and then looking up the salaries of dietitians and questioning whether it was worth it. But for me, what kept me going was just knowing my family history; knowing that my mother passed from diabetes and my dad passed away from cancer and just knowing that the health of my family could have changed if we knew better and more about nutrition. If it was focused on, or if it was talked about. Neither one of my parents had ever been to a dietitian, so that just shows you that they had health issues, but not once did someone recommend a dietitian. So, it’s important what we’re doing and that really propelled me to become a registered dietitian. I knew the moment I became one, that I would be able to make an impact in communities that needs it the most.

Q As dietitians, we are passionate about helping people make healthful choices, in particular for more plant-based options. But what are some of the barriers that low socioeconomic communities face when they want to make these choices?

A Ashley: I would say the first barrier is education. For most people, they feel that in order to eat healthy, they have to go to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or a farmer’s market. In some areas, that is just not available. Like I can tell you where I grew up in Liberty City, there’s never been a farmer’s market there, there’s no access to it. There’s not even a major grocery store, where I grew up. So, it’s hard when you’re living in certain conditions to have access to the fresh, beautiful, and pretty fruits and vegetables. The main thing is just educating those communities whatever you can have access to, to utilize it. Whether it’s frozen or canned vegetables, no matter what, whatever you have access to, try to purchase that. Also, just getting out of that bad habit, like a lot of the times families spend a lot of money on juice because they think their kids need fruit juice, but really they don’t. So, it’s just changing that mindset and reconstructing their plate to teach them how they can continue to do the things that they like—what they’re currently doing, but just modify it slightly based off what’s available to them.

Jasmine: Like Ashley grew up in Liberty City, there’s a situation of nutrition education and access, but for me it was about the education, but also the access of foods looking appealing to actually want to buy. I have stories of going to the grocery store and the bologna and foods like that could look more appetizing versus the rotting piece of spinach that’s overpriced. So, I think with that, there’s so much that goes into it, like product support that needs to happen and we need to continue to push for a change, but until then it’s about creating the access behind it. I love how Ashley mentioned about nutrition education, because the greatest Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and all these awesome grocery stores could go in the middle of a low-income neighborhood, but people will still go in there and buy the unhealthy options because they are not educated in a sense of how to choose healthy foods that are healthier for them. I use this in a lot of teaching too as far as education, I really have to think outside the box. Those juices like Ashley mentioned, they aren’t going to make you full. They are cheap, but they are not going to make you full and you’re going to continue to eat more and more food. But if you eat some of these higher fiber foods, and still make them taste great, and make it a family tradition, then you can be full longer and spend less on food. So, it’s kind of like having them think differently, like Ashley said, a mindset about what types of foods to buy and how to gain access or even create your own access, which is what we are doing a little bit with the gardening class.

Connecting people by educating them on how to grow food is powerful for healthy eating.

Q Tell us more about the power of theses gardening classes you are offering?

A Jasmine: My grandmother had a garden that she shared with her neighbor, and that was her way of creating access because the grocery store wasn’t as close as she would have loved it to be. She actually gave food out to different people in the community who needed it. So it’s funny because it’s a full circle, me being in that garden, I honestly did not like it because I was like “It’s hot outside. I’m a kid, I want to play. I don’t want to be in a garden picking different produce.” But now I love it. It’s so important to teach the kids and even adults, to their surprise, how their vegetables look in the garden—those that they usually eat on their plates. Or maybe they don’t eat on their plates, but now they know how it looks because they created it from a seed and actually harvested it. It’s like “I want to try it now because this is something that I produced.” So for me it goes deeper, like this is a connection of that hand in that soil to really have that feeling that they created this or this is their own, so it’s kind of like an ownership that they can be proud of and I’m just so happy that we’ve been able to provide that experience for a few communities and now we’ve even switched to virtual gardening and potting classes to get people more involved and excited about different produce that they may like in the season.

Q Can you share some stories of success that you’ve experienced in EatWell Exchange?

A Jasmine: There are plenty of stories. I think of this as a funny story, because some people aren’t aware that there are white sweet potatoes. We actually had a mom and her daughter come to the garden and they were picking white sweet potatoes and they realized they were white inside and took them home and she was like, “Oh no Jasmine, I threw them away because I thought they were spoiled!” I was like “No! This is how they’re supposed to be!” Again, it goes back to the education part of like how that’s so important because everybody is not going to be exposed to the same type of sweet potatoes. It’s not to say one type of sweet potato is better than the other, or it’s not to say that this sweet potato is gold and this one isn’t. It’s just to really teach them and say this is possible and this is what you may see, so I really think that it’s been like an eye opener, not just for children, actually for their parents as well. So that’s been fun.

Ashley: Another success story that we have when it comes to gardening is our garden in Haiti. When it comes to the United States, we know with the pandemic you know everybody’s life has shifted here, and we’ve had a lot of help when it comes to people getting the stimulus, unemployment, and different things like that. In Haiti, that’s not available. So, if you lost your job you just lost your job. If you can’t go to school, you can’t go to school. There’s no government aid to help them. But we started our garden there in 2019, and now the children are able to plant and grow themselves. A lot of them started taking crops home to regrow for their family and things like that. So now, even though the pandemic has been going on, the 35 families that we serve have still been able to bring produce home to their family. So, for us that was just like one of those moments because you see something like literally the seeds that they put in the ground is allowing them to continue to survive throughout this very rough time, so that’s like one of those moments where you just really see what you’re doing come to fruition.

Growing your own food, by way of a community garden small garden, or pot, can increase access to healthful foods.

Q What are ways that people in the city can have access to growing healthful foods?

A Jasmine: They always say that if you have dirt, a pot, and a seed you’re good to go. That is one reason that we also started to really implement the potting class that’s virtual. What we do is host a farmer that we have a connection with. We have them come on and talk about starting the seed in the actual pot, which is awesome. Honestly, there are mistakes that you can make. In our dietetics curriculum, there wasn’t a course on how to grow anything, so we did have to start from the beginning, and I think my thumb is getting a little bit greener as I’m getting more and more experience. We’re learning from each other as just being lifelong learners, but I would start from the pot. My number one recommendation if you’re starting with potting, soil, and a seed, you’re potting kit, is to make sure to not put the seed too deep in the soil because that was my mistake for a long time. It needs to be roughly maybe an inch or two in the soil, but not too much. That would be my recommendation there if you want to start with transplants, that’s okay, it’s not considered cheating. Just start with a transplant if you don’t want to get a seed, and also doing a little bit of research of how big the plant gets so you know how much room that you may have for the potting process. So that’s another thing, and herbs are brilliant to start out with, especially if you feel like you don’t have a green thumb.

Q What about community gardens? How do you connect people with these in communities?

A Ashley: Yes, we have worked in a lot of community gardens in the South Florida area, typically if we’re doing any type of culinary class, we try to find a garden nearby. A lot of times there are gardens in communities, and the community members don’t know anything about it. They walk by it, drive by it every single day and they don’t even realize they have a garden there. Then it’s hard because that’s why a lot of gardens fail because they don’t have community involvement. So, we kind of help them a little bit with outreach; just teaching the children that we’re working with and their families that they have a garden just a couple steps away. For most of the gardens, I think they just charge $20 a year for you to have a plot of land and you can grow whatever you want. Then some of the main gardeners that come will even help you tend your land, so it’s not like you’re on your own trying to figure things out. But mostly people don’t know about it and are intimidated by it and they don’t understand the process, so we work with guardians and we just try to connect them to the community. Also, just bring the kids out to the garden because a lot of the times the kids will bring their parents, and sometimes the grandparents too. So, we really try to increase the exposure for the garden and also increase the relationships with the students as well.

Many “superfoods,” such as chia seeds, are actually part of traditional, indigenous foodways.

Q So many of the so-called superfoods are actually indigenous, traditional foods in many communities. How can we best honor these food traditions and ingredients?

A Ashley: It’s hard because it naturally happens. I can tell you, as an example, growing up my dad is from Trinidad so he would always give us soursop. He would always tell us to drink a little bit of soursop in the morning. Soursop is good so I’m not going to question it. But now that I’m older and started to realize the benefits of soursop, there’s actually a lot of research now connecting soursop to cancer treatment and prevention and different things like that. So that’s what it was like for us growing up, they knew that it was good for you, but they probably didn’t know of all the benefits, and it was just part of our culture to drink it. But now, soursop is very expensive, so it would be impossible for me to have soursop everyday now. That’s usually what happens with superfoods; it starts off as an indigenous food that we like and we enjoy, but then once it becomes popular and trendy now the people who were originally enjoying it can’t afford it anymore. So, it’s hard. Try to learn about the foods, but don’t exploit them to the point where now they’re overpriced and now there’s all kinds of soursop pills and things like that. Just try to appreciate it without owning it I guess is the best way to put it.

Jasmine: I would just say think about how many different friends or family members you have and what they may eat that may not be what you see advertised and considered as “healthy foods” when you google it. If we’re honest and google healthy foods sometimes it’s things like kale, but you may not have been exposed to kale or maybe your grandmother didn’t eat kale and that’s not what you weren’t raised on. But instead collard greens or turnip greens are looked at as negatives because they are associated with “soul food,” but it actually has just as much or even more benefits as kale. I would say just look at what your friends and families are doing, especially from past generations, and see what were their habits regarding the foundation of food. Now don’t get me wrong, there are still some foods in the soul food culture that if we add different things to it that may not make it as healthy for us as it needs to be. The foundation of the food itself is amazing, it just may need a little bit of editing with how it’s prepared as far as how we eat it. I think it’s so important to not think that quinoa is better than brown rice, but if you grew up on rice then it’s fine. Quinoa is just another grain that someone may eat, but you don’t have to eat it to necessarily be healthy.

Plant-based foods, like beans and peas, can fit into affordable, traditional eating patterns. 

Q Do you think that local plant-based foods, based on whole ingredients, can actually fit into affordable eating patterns?

A Jasmine: For me, that’s a really good question. I feel like we’re still trying to understand that concept. Again, that’s not something that we’re taught as dietitians to figure out. Ashley mentioned you kind of have to work with what you have. Unless you do have that opportunity to provide that access or if you know how to create that access for yourself. I know that of course when we think about these big corporations and how they’re affordable versus local, it’s a bit of a gap, in the sense of the financial part of it. That is something that I am still learning about, being in North Carolina, this is a huge belt for agriculture. I’ve been able to visit certain local farmers and then you have your huge farmers where it’s a big difference in what they’re producing and the cost of it all. I’m hoping for the vision of EatWell to have some type of food hub that we can have in different areas in the U.S.; people really need it if they may be in a food desert. Those food hubs are so important for us to have for the entire community to be involved. For instance, here in Raleigh, I had the privilege of going to a community meeting that they had for the Southeast area of Raleigh, where it’s a huge area of food deserts. I remember talking to the directors of the co-op, and it’s actually a black-owned co-op organization. She mentioned to me, “I love what you’re doing, I’m glad that you moved here and want to get involved. Honestly, the thing that I’m concerned about is the fact that Raleigh is a growing city and they’re not involving the locals when they’re trying to make these decisions of how to make these changes.” That is something we take very seriously. You don’t want to come in the community and say “I’m here to save the day.” You want to get to know them. You want to get involved. You want to talk to them. You want to see if they really want the help from you anyways. I think that’s such a big mistake we made when it comes to trying to get involved locally. It’s a journey and I’m super excited to be able to make those contacts, but I think it starts with getting to know the people. The answer may not be going to support a local farmer that may be 30 miles away. The real problem can be solved if you buy this lot as a community and get the people that were born and raised here to help with that lot to create a community garden.

Ashley: In South Florida, it’s a little bit different, just because most people here don’t have a lot of land at all. The houses here are closer together and more of the rural areas are homestead, which is probably about 45 minutes from me without traffic. In Central Florida, where Jasmine used to live, there’s a lot of orange groves and farms and everything like that. In Miami/South Florida, no one has a farm or a lot of land, it’s very rare honestly. So I think for us it’s very hard because of the distance. You would think about travelling to a farm that would take you 30-40 minutes, compared to just going to the store which may take you 10-15 minutes depending on the area. I can say that a positive program we have here is “Farm Share”. What they do is they take the remainder of the produce that is not bad yet, it could have blemishes, and overall can’t sell in stores, and then give it out to the community for free. That is a great way to introduce the community to farming because sometimes we think that everything has to be perfect and pretty, but when you’re farming and gardening, that is not the case. That’s one of the doors that opens up because I know that doesn’t benefit the farmers as much because they are giving away produce. At the end of the day, I think it starts that conversation. So maybe as those kids and families that they’re giving to, when they get older, they may buy from farmers because they remember that this farmer gave me produce at a time that I needed it and now that they have the funds I’d support that farm. I don’t know how often that happens, but I like the fact that it is at least introducing the community to farmers and what their produce looks like as well.

Support community gardens in your neighborhood to provide greater access to local, healthful foods. Read Sharon’s article on community gardens here.

Q What are your suggestions on how we can get involved in communities to create a healthier food access and better food systems?

A Jasmine: Number one, volunteer. Start as volunteer so that you can observe and assess. Try volunteering at different programs and areas. Then you get to see what your skills and gifts are and what you can contribute. Then you develop a relationship with the people. That is more important because then that’s when they begin to trust you. Second, become aware. There may be things that you may not be aware of. All our cultures are different. Different communities are different. We really can’t assume that a problem in Raleigh, North Carolina is the same problem in Miami, Florida. There may be two different things that cause the problem.

Ashley: For me, my main thing is sustainability. A lot of people love to do projects. They like to come to the event, pass out food, go to the garden. Yes, you did make an impact for doing that, but what happens tomorrow? That was the big aha moment for us in Haiti because we haven’t been able to go back because of the pandemic going on, but the changes are sustainable. That’s my main thing, just try to work on more projects. For anyone who wants to be involved in the community, just think about sustainability. Think about what can I do today that will impact generations and continue to change and grow even if I step away? For Jasmine and I, EatWell has become a national program where we’re working with people all throughout the U.S. and it’s only the two of us. We can’t be at all these different states so we’re trying to put more in place so that we can have sustainable changes because that’s what’s really going to make it continue to make an impact for years to come.

Q How can people support your efforts at EatWell Exchange?

A Ashley: There are a couple of different ways. We’re a 5013C non-profit, so we’re run by donations. We got out our first grant this year, which we’re very excited about. Before that grant, we were purely funded off donations and Jasmine and my personal money that we put into Eat Well projects. First, you can donate. So that’s a huge help if anybody would like to go to our donate box on our site and donate and support us. Second, you can volunteer. A lot of people think that they physically have to come out and volunteer and that’s how it used to be. Since the pandemic, we shifted and now we have virtual volunteers where they can help us come up with curriculum, recipes, different programming, and many other skill sets. If you’re an accountant, and you want to volunteer with us, you can help us with accounting by making a spreadsheet for us. Depending on what your skillset is, you can always find a way to volunteer with us and help us because anything you do makes a huge impact to the communities we serve.

Jasmine: Because of the pandemic, at first we didn’t know what to do. When we say virtual, it can be as simple as donating seeds to participants in the potting class or maybe you have experience as a farmer and want to teach a class. It can be as simple as where you can make that national impact. It’s really just turning on that computer and telling us what you’re good at. We take all the help we can get because we’re not of all trades by any means. We would love to just really conversate to see how or what you’ve seen and how we can contribute to maybe an organization you’re in or a church. We have a lot of people that reach out to us and are like,“Oh my gosh, I need you at my church for women’s health!” For me, that is volunteering because you are spreading the word that number one, there are black dietitians because there are not that many of us so people are excited to see us when they do, and that two, we can relate and we are really about changing, impacting them, and truly care about their well-being and health.

Be sure to check out Ashley and Jasmine’s work at EatWell Exchange, and support them by making a donation.

Ashley and Jasmine shared one of their favorite plant-based recipes, Veggie Jambalaya with us.

Veggie Jambalaya

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • ½ jalapeño, chopped
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • ¾ cup brown rice
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp worchestershire or soy suaec
  • 3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • Red kidney beans

Preparation:

  • Add oil to a large pan on a medium-high heat
  • Add chopped onions, celery, and bell peppers. Cook for 5 minutes.
  • Add garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, Worcestershire, jalapeños & seasoning
  • Add rice and slowly add vegetable broth
  • Cook on medium heat for 20 min
  • Stir in kidney beans, cook for 10 min

 

More about Ashley and Jasmine:

Ashley’s passion for wellness began at a young age having both parents with type 2 diabetes and watching them try to manage their disease by making lifestyle changes. Originally from Miami, she noticed how her environment impacted her ability to achieve optimal wellness. For the past 9 years, she has been a Nutrition Educator, originally advising her peers in college as a certified peer health educator and now for families in lower income populations. Ashley earned her Bachelor’s of Science degree from Florida State University in Dietetics with a minor in religion and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Dietetics with a concentration in Health Informatics. Ashley is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and believes the way we eat is highly influenced by our families, culture, access to foods, and our beliefs or religion. Ashley likes to practice holistic health and tries to incorporate mental, physical, and nutrition into her interventions.

Jasmine works as a Registered Dietitian at a Diabetes Outpatient Facility and believes in a realistic approach to improving nutritional habits for better quality of life. Her interest in nutrition blossomed from health problems dominating her family’s life but could have been corrected through preventive diet measures. She earned her Bachelor’s of Science degree in Nutrition Dietetics from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and earned her Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rosalind Franklin University. She has worked as a Nutrition Educator in the Florida Department of Health for 3 years while counseling patients concerning health issues impacting the community. Throughout her experience and service with the community and with the Florida Health Department, she saw there was a huge need of nutrition education in minorities through culture.

Check out more Live Chats with Sharon:

Fight Cancer with Your Fork, with Karen Collins and Sharon Palmer
Eating for IBS on a Plant-Based Diet with Kate Scarlata
How to Enjoy Alcohol Healthfully
How to Eat a Healthy, Plant-Based Mediterranean Diet with Rahf Al-Bochi

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