LMU Paper Panel Focuses on Food and Health During Pandemic


A Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) faculty/student trio presented at the 10th Annual International Health Humanities Consortium about ways the global pandemic has affected many people's relationship to food and, as a result, their physical and mental health. Assistant Professor of English Sandra Weems, osteopathic medical student Katherine DeMars, and English major Jennifer Gambrel, made up the all-LMU paper panel that examined these issues in different ways.


The virtual conference was hosted by Penn State University on March 27 featured 250 attendees, including physicians and humanities scholars from a wide range of specialties and disciplines. The conference theme was Crisis and Community: The Role of Health Humanities.


DeMars, a student at LMU-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine, drew on her experiences in her third-year rotations and research in social determinants of health to present "Hungry for Change: The complex relationship between nutrition, socioeconomic status, and health outcomes.” Her presentation focused specifically on patients with metabolic syndrome, which is a syndrome consisting of obesity, high triglyceride levels, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, and high blood pressure. Many socioeconomic factors can contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome has always been a disease state with many associated long-term consequences; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the consequences of this disease more apparent because of the association with poor COVID-19 outcomes.


“In the crisis of the past year, I have seen first-hand how the social determinants of health such as food, housing, and transportation, have impacted patients,” DeMars said. “There are countless issues implicated in the inequity experienced by lower socioeconomic groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as lack of health care resources and pre-existing comorbidities. Nutrition is one way to combat these inequities by treating what is preventable. In all, a combination of government and medical community support, community education, and significant individual work is necessary to begin to adequately address the needs of our communities with comorbidities and social inequalities.”


Gambrel surveyed the new and growing sub-field of medicine and psychology called "culinary therapy" and presented her research in a paper titled "Culinary Therapy Cooks Up Benefits."


“Recent research indicates that culinary therapy provides positive psychosocial benefits, strengthened cognitive abilities, and reduced traumatic symptoms for a wide range of patients, as well as a stronger relatability in medical providers,” Gambrel said. “It combines basic skills and nutrition facts with conversations and therapy led by a combination of professionals, including physicians, counselors and chefs.”


The wide range of activities available assures sessions tailored to the exact needs and abilities of the patients. Cooking can help participants focus attention on their strengths rather than on their illness. Culinary therapy is being used as a form of grief counseling, as cognitive rehabilitation for those suffering various types of memory loss, and as part of a treatment regimen in various mental and behavioral illnesses. For physicians and other health care providers, culinary therapy is being used to pass nutritional information on to patients and to help the providers relate to their patients.


“As a subset of medical humanities, culinary therapy helps develop our stories and provides another avenue for self-expression,” Gambrel said. “A renewed sense of empathy and stronger self-confidence result from time spent in the kitchen. The pandemic has refocused our attention on the part of the world closest to us, and our relationship with food and cooking are a major facet of that world. Cooking connects us and reminds us we are not alone.”


Weems presented a paper based on pedagogy and student response in her ENGL 350 class, Narrative, Healing, and the Body, called “Lessons Online: Teaching Jessica Fechtor’s Stir During Lockdown in Appalachia.”


“In my health humanities class last spring (2020), this pathography just happened to be on the syllabus when we all were required to stay at home,” Weems said. “In the conference presentation, I wanted to show some of the unexpected problems Appalachian students faced and overcame in this crisis, and how this book helped our class begin to value that time at home.”


Fetchor’s story of her brain aneurysm includes her medical experience and also “stirs” in recipes that helped her strengthen memories and motor skills as she recovered. Weems’ students shared photos of food they prepared from Fetchor’s recipes on the course discussion board, and her presentation included several of them, all taken during lockdown. 


“Like the author, they found preparing and sharing good food in those hard weeks to be an important kind of healing,” Weems said. “I’m proud of the work these students did. I'm especially proud of Katherine and Jennifer, whose excellent, empathic presentations of medical, social and mental health perspectives of food made our panel truly interdisciplinary.”


Lincoln Memorial University is a values-based learning community dedicated to providing educational experiences in the liberal arts and professional studies. The main campus is located in Harrogate, Tennessee. For more information about the undergraduate and graduate programs available at LMU, contact the Office of Admissions at 423.869.6280 or email at [email protected].

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