Interview with Suzanne Mead Feldmann

CHEF (Culinary Health Education for Families)

CHEF Team

The CHEF program at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio features the nation’s first Teaching Kitchen located within a free-standing Children’s Hospital.

We chatted with Ms. Feldmann about the importance of culinary medicine, the lack of nutrition education for health care providers, and the impact of providing hands-on instruction to doctors and families.


Q: How did CHEF Come to Be?

A: In 2013, Goldsbury Foundation, a private family foundation in San Antonio, Texas, partnered with The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio to create a signature childhood nutrition initiative.  As a foundation committed to driving healthy eating, we were concerned about the skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates in our community. Our research and due diligence was thorough. We looked at what worked, what didn’t and identified the gaps in service in our own town.  We landed at Culinary Medicine – that is, blending the science of nutrition with the art of cooking. Partnering with The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio made perfect sense as far as we were concerned. It gave us the opportunity to work with physicians, registered dieticians and other allied health professionals who are then able to influence the health and well-being of children and their caregivers.  We then partnered with the Culinary Institute of American to design a state-of-the-art Teaching Kitchen, and finally recruited a rock-star team (Medical Director Julie La Barba, Program Director and CIA-trained chef Maria Palma, Registered Dietician Celina Paras, and Program Coordinator Rebecca Vance) to be the CHEF team at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. 

We know that physicians receive very little nutrition education during their formal medical education. As we were researching and developing the CHEF program, we spoke to many physicians who indicated that they don’t feel comfortable or have the dedicated time to talk to patients about healthy eating, much less about how to cook healthy meals. We offered the CHEF program free-of-charge and asked them to trust our team to teach their patients and caregivers evidenced-based nutrition and provide hands-on cooking opportunities so that their patient would come back to them better equipped to manage their particular disease state.


Q: Why is obesity-prevention so important?

A: Obesity is a national crisis and getting worse. Here in San Antonio, rates of obesity and diabetes continue to rise. Seven out of ten adults are overweight or obese in our community – and the children and youth of today have completely lost touch with the concept of “real food” or how to cook simple meals. We need to start as early as possible. We want doctors to talk to pregnant moms about prenatal nutrition. Once the baby is born, we want doctors to talk to parents about how to feed the baby to impact health and wellness. And we want the caregiver to have the practical skills to actually go out and do that day after day. Our vision is to surround Mom and baby with positive, simple, culturally-relevant, nutrition messages from every possible angle:  What happens if both mom and baby hear the same message about healthy eating from a doctor, a trusted voice of authority, as they do in school, afterschool, summer camp, etc.? That consistent message about how important food is to health will make the difference.


Q: What are the major innovations or takeaways of your program?

A: I hesitate to claim something is an innovation, but we do feel that our approach of CHEF has been innovative. We have developed a very deliberate, comprehensive network of community partners, including the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the San Antonio Botanical Garden and the San Antonio Food Bank, and a proprietary curriculum that is culturally relevant to San Antonio. The program is bilingual. And The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is the only free-standing academic children’s hospital that we know of that has a teaching kitchen embedded in the core of its building. Since we launched the CHEF Teaching Kitchen at The Children’s Hospital in January of 2017, that team has provided hands-on culinary medicine education to hundreds of physicians patients and family members. Across the entire CHEF network, more than 21,000 people have encountered a CHEF class or demonstration during 2017 alone.


Q: What’s one surprising lesson you’ve learned from this program?

A: One good surprise is that while it can sometimes be hard to get people to commit to come to the teaching kitchen for multiple classes, once we get them there, they often don’t want to leave. They learn together as a family. We have a hard time moving them out of the program to make room for other families! In addition, there been such a high level of interest from residents to seasoned doctors. Doctors have been very open to saying I don’t know anything about this, I want to learn about this, bring it on. The talented CHEF team at the hospital have worked hard to engage the physicians through innovative programming such as Physician Culinary Medicine Conferences, Boot Camps, “Iron CHEF” Competitions, Department Team-Building Courses, Lunch-and-Learns, etc. 


Q: What’s one piece of advice for other health care provider training and education programs thinking about doing something similar?

A: We moved deliberately and built coalitions carefully. We did a lot of work before we offered our first class. We held a culinary medical conference for physicians, brought in renowned speakers, and built interest and awareness way before the kitchen opened. A lot of this work takes one-one relationship building and telling doctors that we can be your partner.  We make it clear to physicians that CHEF is a complementary intervention to their practice rather than a stand-alone intervention.  It is the partnership between CHEF and physician that makes it all work.


Q: What’s your hope for the legacy of the program?

A: We have a clear vision for the future of CHEF. What started with The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio and the program continues to grow with logical community partners – food banks, schools, afterschool programs, etc. We want to impact the life of the child and those who influence children’s lives and get the CHEF message everywhere children are.


CHEF is a winner of the 2018 Innovation Award for Healthcare Provider Training and Education. To learn more, visit innovatinghealthcare.org.