New meal prep program targets community health

FOOD AS MEDICINE: Shaniqua Simuel sets up free cooking demonstrations where people can watch her prepare the meals, taste test and ask questions. Photo courtesy of Simuel

Shaniqua Simuel is on a mission to change lives through food. She is not a nutritionist or a dietitian; instead, she considers herself a community-based advocate and enjoys helping others think about their relationship with food.

Last year, Simuel started a whole-food meal preparation program called Change Your Palate following the deaths of her grandparents, who were instrumental in her upbringing. Her grandmother died at 58; her grandfather was 65 when he passed.

Losing her maternal grandparents to nutritional diseases catalyzed a personal journey discovering the powerful relationship between food and community. Simuel originally attended Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to study culinary arts. Yet stumbling upon a public health meeting on campus led her down a different path. She knew that diet and lifestyle contributed to her grandmother’s passing, and now she was hungry to learn more about helping others prolong life through prevention. After reflecting on her personal “why” and talking to her counselors, Simuel switched from culinary arts to forensic pathology and earned an associate degree in science and phlebotomy certification.

Upon receiving her master’s degree in public health from Campbell University in 2019, Simuel traveled to Ethiopia to serve in the Peace Corps. In Ethiopia, she experienced firsthand the immense benefits of healthy eating. Even under stress from being in an unfamiliar environment and her new role as a health educator, Simuel tells Xpress that she felt great and noticed a change in her hair and nails. She credits the locally grown whole food for making her feel like she had a fresh “restart every day.”

Change Your Palate

The COVID-19 pandemic cut Simuel’s time in the Peace Corps short, forcing her to return to Western North Carolina as the world shut down. Despite a tough transition, Simuel arrived home inspired and ready to kick-start her idea, Change Your Palate.

Simuel reached out to Phyllis Utley, A-B Tech’s diversity recruiter, to share her vision of a meal prep program. Utley, who she calls “a pillar in the Black community,” recommended she apply for a grant from CoThinkk, a philanthropy nonprofit. She was awarded the grant in the fall of 2021, which allowed Change Your Palate to become an LLC in June 2022.

Change Your Palate originated from Simuel’s graduate capstone project. “I wanted to address food insecurity with those who had Type 2 diabetes or hypertension and do something similar to Hello Fresh or Blue Apron, but with food pantry food,” she says. Simuel worked closely with eight families over three months, educating them about nutrition, and guiding them in their cooking and eating habits. She worked with the Harnett County food pantry, a popular food pantry near Campbell University, to find individuals who had Type 2 diabetes or hypertension and were willing to be a part of her research for the meal kits.

Simuel incorporates in-season, locally grown whole foods, creates recipes that are diabetic- and hypertension-friendly and packages the meals. She also sets up free cooking demonstrations where people can watch her prepare the meals, taste test and ask questions. Customers can purchase a four- to six-serving meal kit for $30-$45 for home cooking.

Since establishing Change Your Palate in June, Simuel has partnered with local nonprofits and organizations, including Asheville-Buncombe Institute of Parity Achievement and the AmeriHealth Caritas North Carolina. ABIPA’s community health workers helped deliver the first 80 meals of Change Your Palate; AmeriHealth Caritas hosts Simuel’s free cooking demonstrations and taste tests at its wellness center, giving her a platform and opportunity to connect with those in need. (Tiera Beale, the wellness center administrator cites jackfruit pulled pork as a popular dish. “The directions were easy, and the class was fun, which made everyone excited to try it at home,” Beale says.)

Through ABIPA’s nutrition arm, Simuel also helps others through the Healthy Opportunities Pilot, a new federally funded comprehensive program seeking to show the impact of providing nonmedical needs such as housing stability and food security, to Medicaid beneficiaries.

Simuel says she witnesses growing confidence in the people inspired to make small personal changes through her program. She enjoys hearing stories about their small victories, like reading labels or simply thinking differently about grocery shopping. She notices her customers making a connection between “the food in front of them and how it was going to affect them afterward.”

These small shifts make Simuel the most hopeful: “I like to see us making small, consistent changes instead of trying to make this huge, big one.”

Southern soul food and lifestyle

Growing up in the South, Simuel is no stranger to cooking and eating Southern cuisine. She learned how to prepare cornbread and collard greens from her grandpa. However, she’s learned over time  that some traditional ingredients and preparations can cause health problems.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health confirmed that people with diabetes who were born or living in the South have a lower quality of life and a significant threat to life expectancy. “I wasn’t raised eating kale or avocado,” she says while discussing the disconnect many Southerners have with food and health. Instead, Simuel remembers being overfed and “loved with food.” In the South especially, food brings people together, Simuel says. She’s concerned that people take medications to heal and feel better rather than considering how diet and lifestyle could contribute to poor health.

Now Simuel advocates for the well-being of her community, especially people of color struggling with Type 2 diabetes or hypertension. Although her primary focus is on people of color, these issues affect everyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three adults has prediabetes, with the majority unaware they have it. Within five years, prediabetes can turn into Type 2 diabetes if people do not take action.

A large part of Simuel’s work through Change Your Palate is championing food education, and she carefully considers the steps someone might need to reach  health goals. “I’m intentional during my cooking demos to use things that don’t require a lot of money,” she says. “For example, someone may not have a juicer. I’m borrowing one!” She explains as she’s planning on showing different methods to juice so that people can take action with what they have on hand.

Simuel tells Xpress that she is currently learning about trauma-informed nutrition — the idea that childhood experiences with food influence and shape our current relationships with food.

Shiloh Community Gardens

When Simuel isn’t indoors wearing her chef hat, she can be found in the garden getting her hands dirty. Simuel helps run the Shiloh Community Garden along with Chloe Moore and Lydia George. Members of the Shiloh community in Asheville — including Simuel’s late grandfather, Moses Simuel, former president of the Shiloh Community Association — established the garden.

The garden is a special place for Simuel. In February 2022, she learned how to prune fruit trees correctly in order to revitalize three pear trees her grandfather had planted over a decade earlier. By June, the trees began to show signs of new life and were fully grown by September — just in time to harvest a cooking demonstration.

On the fall equinox, Simuel hosted a cooking demo at the Shiloh Community Garden. She made a homemade pound cake glazed with pears from the trees, honoring her grandfather. As she shared her story, she gazed upon the crowd, taking in the moment as ripe with meaning as the pears were with their juice. She reflects, “At that moment, I knew I was right where I needed to be.”

by Amber Niven


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