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The Prescription Kitchen

Local doctors have been giving their patients an unusual prescription -- attend a cooking class to improve their diabetes, back pain and other chronic health conditions.

The La Clinica Wellness Center in Medford is equipped with a kitchen that serves as the stage for Prescription Kitchen cooking classes.

"The kitchen has just been a huge part of the wellness center, and I feel it is the heart and soul of what we aim to teach our patients here," said class instructor Matt Hogge, medical director for the center and a family nurse practitioner.

For the La Clinica patients who attend eight-week sessions, the classes are half cooking advice and half medical check-up. They share their progress on goals such as eating more vegetables, choosing water over sugary drinks and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise each day.

Lila Webster, a diabetic, weighed nearly 300 pounds and suffered from high blood sugar and high blood pressure when she was referred to the class.

"Being in Matt's class is helping me eat healthy. I'm eating really good. I'm losing weight," Webster said.

She’s lost almost 80 pounds so far, has lowered her blood pressure and has more control over her diabetes.

“I’m just doing really good. And my kids are really proud of me, because they worry about me,” she said.

Widowed four years ago, Webster lives in Medford. Her grown children and grandchildren live in California, although they enjoy visiting the Rogue Valley and chatting with Webster via computer.

She does physical therapy and practices yoga at the wellness center to address her back pain. Members of the Prescription Kitchen class recently went bowling together.

Hogge said his initial goal for the Prescription Kitchen classes was to help people eat more healthfully and stop the downward spiral of their chronic diseases. But the classes have become a place for people to forge friendships and avoid isolation.

During a recent cooking class, Hogge told participants he was glad to hear they’d gone bowling together.

“I like the relationships outside of class that are being built,” he said.

Hogge and Ana Maria Salaverry, a La Clinica community health worker, recently demonstrated how to make a spicy Thai curry with mixed vegetables. They diced sweet potatoes, onions and eggplant, then cooked the vegetables with coconut milk, chicken broth, red curry, a bit of honey and peanut butter, freshly squeezed lime juice, cilantro and mint.

As an easy and economical way to increase the nutritional value of the meal, they added mixed frozen vegetables.

Hogge said many of the low-income patients served by La Clinica start running low on money by the end of the month. Buying a $2 bag of mixed vegetables and stowing it in the freezer offers a way to eat healthfully for the whole month.

Some of the class participants said they struggled with some of the class goals, especially the one to eat vegetables at every meal.

Brenda Reeder of Medford asked whether pumpkin seeds could count as a vegetable because she eats homemade granola with pumpkin seeds, cranberries and yogurt for breakfast.

Classmate Pamela Dye, also of Medford, advised her to pop a few vegetables in her mouth in the morning when she’s packing her lunch.

Hogge reassured them they don’t have to meet all the class goals every day, but can work on making healthful choices each week.

In addition to the Prescription Kitchen classes, the wellness center hosts a Sugar Knockout challenge class, a Spanish language healthy eating class called La Buena Vida, and a bilingual Healthy Eating for Kids class.

The nonprofit group ACCESS visits the wellness center monthly with its mobile food pantry.

About 100 people attend classes every month, and about 75 people visit the food pantry, according to Wellness Center Practice Manager Juliette Robinette.

Jackson Care Connect and its parent organization Care Oregon help fund the kitchen and other La Clinica initiatives to improve patients’ overall health.

Jackson Care Connect and AllCare Health, which provide Oregon Health Plan benefits locally, are working to control medical spending by focusing on preventative care and healthy living.

Roughly one-third of Jackson County residents are on the Oregon Health Plan — health insurance subsidized by the state and federal governments.

Patients who take part in the La Clinica classes often show improvements in their health, including less pain, fewer digestive issues and an overall increase in life satisfaction, Robinette said.

For Webster, the ultimate payoff for managing her diabetes will be having more years to enjoy her family.

“I’m trying to lose a little bit more weight to see my grandkids growing up,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Ana Maria Salaverry, La Clinica community health worker, and Matt Hogge, medical director for La Clinica Wellness Center, teach a healthy cooking class on Thursday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune