Black Women for Wellness (BWW)
Los Angeles, CA
Black Women for Wellness (BWW) is a community-based grassroots organization in Los Angeles, CA that works to address the health and well-being of Black women and girls through health education, empowerment, and advocacy. The organization started as a group of women who—concerned with the health and well-being of Black babies—teamed up with the Birthing Project to implement the Shangazi Program. This program matched pregnant women to mentors who coached parents from pregnancy until the child was at least one year old. Within 4 years of implementation, BWW began moving upstream to address systems and legislative policy by creating a California-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1997.
Featured in this Communities Building Power for Health Case Study (CBPH) is Black Women for Wellness’ Kitchen Divas program: a healthy cooking interactive workshop/demonstration where participants get to work on recipes that encourage a healthier lifestyle. Through this program, BWW seeks to improve the dietary habits of Black families by training community members on how to prepare healthy vegetarian meals.
What Sparked the Kitchen Divas Program?
Today, more than half of Black women in America (54.8%) have obesity. Additionally, Black women suffer much higher rates of chronic diseases—such as heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and hypertension—than their white female peers. These diseases and conditions are directly linked to stress, diet, and physical exercise.
Incorporating healthy food into one’s diet is difficult when healthy and affordable food is less readily available than cheap and unhealthy food in communities with high levels of disinvestment, such as South Central Los Angeles. In a recent interview with Praxis, Executive Director and Co-Founder of BWW Janette Robinson acknowledged this difficulty by saying: “If I wanted a pound of black cherries, it’s like $7.99 and up a pound. Ben & Jerry’s? Always on sale, $3.99. It’s not the easy choice. And that’s what happens in our communities. It becomes the easy choice to be unhealthy.” However, the price of food is not the only factor affecting the diets of Black communities with high levels of disinvestment; many of these communities lack grocery stores that sell fresh produce.
Other systemic issues create barriers to a healthy lifestyle for Black women, particularly around physical exercise. The lack of safe walkable areas like parks and trails inhibits many Black women from having a safe place to walk, run, and exercise. In addition to this, working-class Black women work more hours for less pay, providing very little time after work to prepare a healthy meal or set aside time for physical exercise.
To address these public health concerns for Black women on both the macro and micro level, Black Women for Wellness started the "Sisters In Motion" initiative, which aims to decrease rates of chronic disease and obesity through education, lifestyle change, prevention, and physical activity. Kitchen Divas is a project under the “Sisters in Motion” initiative.
Kitchen Divas is an educational program that provides healthy cooking workshops and demonstrations in a wide variety of community venues to maximize attendance and exposure—including churches, worksites, community centers, schools, clinics—throughout the Los Angeles area. A Kitchen Divas demonstration is typically held in front of an audience of 15 or more individuals. During the demonstrations, chefs model how to prepare healthy meal options and discuss healthy food purchasing and cooking tips for attendees to utilize at home.
Kitchen Divas workshops focus on helping participants prepare fruits and vegetables as part of healthy and delicious meals. In this interactive experience, participants have the opportunity to work on recipes and sample foods they often haven’t tried before in order to learn how to prepare and cook with those ingredients to make healthy meals at home. For example, Veronica Mayes-Jackson, Chief Kitchen Diva, has offered classes on how to extend food shelf life and other cooking strategies.
Kitchen Divas aims to maximize its reach through intentional engagement with community members who are considered underserved and underinsured. The nature of the program and its many settings allows for local residents who don’t feel comfortable attending in a clinic or hospital setting to join and learn fun and simple strategies to prepare and eat healthier foods. Attendees also gain the tools and knowledge necessary to continue to make healthy food purchasing choices in their daily lives outside of the Kitchen Divas workshop.
Despite the seemingly simple nature of a kitchen workshop series, county rules and regulations prevented BWW from diving into their hands-on programming to improve community health. Before BWW could implement their workshops, they first had to purchase insurance to cover any unforeseen accidents that might occur in a cooking workshop. BWW also struggled to find and recruit chefs that were willing to lead a cooking workshop and addressed this recruitment issue through face-to-face conversations and social media outreach. Once the chefs were identified and recruited, BWW then worked with them to identify appropriate courses on how to properly and sanitarily store, prepare, and serve food. These courses are a requirement by the County of Los Angeles for these chefs to be properly certified to run a cooking workshop.
In addition to complying with county policy, Black Women for Wellness had to find creative spaces to address the health needs of their community outside of a typical hospital or clinic setting. Years of discriminatory practices and abuse in the medical field have led to a lack of trust in the Black community for medical institutions. BWW partnered with churches, local businesses, schools, and community centers to host these workshops as a way to address the community’s dietary habits in a space residents would feel more comfortable.
Outcomes and Impact
Kitchen Divas is a 10-year old program that has had a lasting impact on XX families living in areas with high levels of disinvestment in Los Angeles." In 2018, BWW successfully led over 100 classes to encourage residents to improve their dietary habits. Participants have reported numerous positive health outcomes—such as weight loss, reduced fast food consumption, and more physical activity—after attending one or more Kitchen Divas workshops. Additionally, some participants have even reported a reduction and, in some cases, an elimination in medications taken to manage chronic disease--i.e. diabetes and high blood pressure-- as a result of their commitment to healthier dietary practices.
Best Practices And Insights Gleaned
Communities are often targets of education campaigns on healthier eating or more active living but these information campaigns do little to address the material environmental conditions that promote poor nutrition or decreased physical activity. Educating individuals around how to integrate healthier options in a way that works for their community context is one way to encourage individuals to take control of their personal health.
BWW recommends several pointers if your organization or foundation is interested in creating a program similar to Kitchen Divas that helps participants to strengthen their skills to take control of their health:
Create a participant intake form and waiver. The registration form should include questions around dietary restrictions and allergies, as well as questions to identify who participants are cooking for to get an idea of how much autonomy one has over meal selection. It is also important to inquire about any medications participants use regularly and to keep a record of these answers in order to track whether frequent participants have successfully transitioned off or reduced the dosage of medications.
Consider the language you use. If your organization wishes to conduct cooking classes around specific types of meals, for example, vegetarian meals, consider language that resonates with your community. BWW frames their meals as “plant-based food” to avoid the negative stigma of vegetarian meals that exists within segments of the community.
Shop in the community your participants live in. It is important that the chefs in your program do all of their meal prep shopping in the community where the workshop is taking place. Incorporating foods that are inaccessible to the community being served is counterproductive to the mission of helping participants to truly live healthier day-to-day lives. However, this local sourcing of ingredients creates a challenge as many of these communities lack grocery stores that carry the fresh produce necessary for Kitchen Divas fruit and vegetable-based culinary program. By ensuring that the food is purchased locally, the chefs are now able to share knowledge on the grocers that carry fresh produce to the participants as well as which stores should be avoided due to their lack of fresh food
Do your research and collect data consistently. Locating and securing funding for community programs such as Kitchen Divas is often a struggle for grassroots organizations. For this reason, it is important that your organization creates a constructive model for effectively collecting process and outcome data to convey the program’s community impact.
Be aware of your audience’s experience. BWW instructs all of their Kitchen Divas chefs to keep all of their recipes relatively simple so that participants feel empowered to attempt the dishes they learned in the workshop at home. Teaching a recipe with too many ingredients and several complicated steps may leave participants feeling overwhelmed. Recipes and their required ingredients should reflect the tastes popular in the community and also incorporate ingredients that are available.
Make your cooking class FUN! Kitchen Divas began as a way to expand cooking options for many of the founding members of the organization who were vegetarians. The women recognized the need for a program like Kitchen Divas through their own challenges to prepare shared meals that everyone could enjoy. The founders of BWW met the challenge with enthusiasm and that same energy should be present in your healthy cooking program.