The Dietitian Next Door

Learning how to eat better in a food desert with guidance

Charmaine Jones teaches healthy cooking techniques to AmeriHealth members during the monthly cooking class. Photo: Imagine Photography

What’s for dinner? Sounds like a simple question but it can have some very complicated responses. Cooking meals at home has been proven to lead to healthier eating and calorie control.

But what do you do when nutritionally adequate ingredients are scarce and unaffordable? Call your neighborhood dietitian.

Hello! My Name Is Charmaine

Meet Charmaine Jones, registered dietitian nutritionist. Jones is a native Washingtonian who grew up in the Trinidad section of Northeast. As an undergraduate at North Carolina Wesleyan College she studied environmental science. “I just knew I was going to be a tree hugger.”

After spending time working with African-American women in a study at Howard University, Jones knew that her new purpose would be to help others find ways to eat healthy. “People kept telling me that I should go to Bethesda because I can get paid. But it was my dream to work in this community because I grew up in it. The first dietitian I saw was white. I said if I become a dietitian I want to become one for my people.”

Jones earned her BS and MS in nutrition and dietetics from the University of the District of Columbia. She went on to serve as a nutrition counselor for several local organizations and conducted seminars at schools, churches, and DC government offices. Now she is the owner of Food Jonezi, a nutritional consulting practice in Southwest. She provides affordable one-on-one and group consulting.

Best Practices

Many problems can arise when transitioning to a healthier diet. The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) released a report in 2016 entitled “How Hungry Is America?” The report revealed that one in six households in DC struggles to afford enough food. Even when there is enough money, shopping options are few in a grocery-store gap.   

Jones has a few tips for eating healthy on a budget and making the best of your situation. “Carryouts are challenging. When I counsel people, I tell them that if they have to get carryout food, go for the steamed broccoli and grilled chicken. Avoid brown sauces and fried foods.

A lot of my clients shop at 7-Eleven because they just don't have the means [to get to the grocery store]. I know that ramen noodles are a favorite because it's an easy food. I tell them to think about it. You can get a box of spaghetti and a jar of marinara sauce. That’s more nutritious and it lasts at least two days. And it’s more cost effective.”

What about parents who struggle to get or keep their children on a healthy path? Jones advises them to maintain control by enforcing limits. “For kids, I tell the mothers to give their children three options to choose from. Don’t let them choose for themselves because they are going to go for the one that is appealing or has their favorite cartoon character or celebrity. At home I tell them that if they’re going to have ramen noodles then they have to add a protein with it. It makes it a complete meal. With ramen noodles you have salt and carbs. When you add protein at least you can make a meal out if it. And if you have frozen vegetables, add that to it. Then you’re adding the nutrients they took out. You can make it into a soup.”

Making prepackaged foods healthy can be an arduous task. Jones advises parents to find creative ways to sneak in those missing nutrients throughout the day.

Diabetic-Friendly Eating

The District is not immune to the diabetes crisis that is crippling neighborhoods around the nation. According to DC Health Matters.org, 8.5 percent of District residents have been diagnosed with diabetes, comparable to the national average of 8.7 percent. In Wards 7 and 8 the rates are 11 percent and 15 percent respectively. Diabetes can accelerate other health conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and renal disease. Eating habits are a large portion of the solution to controlling and preventing diabetes.

Jones, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia, has a threefold explanation why diabetes continues to be a threat to wellness. “One, when people get the diagnosis from the doctor, the doctor just isn’t taking the time to explain what diabetes is. Two, people are just stuck in their ways. They don’t want to change. Three, the misconception about diabetes is that avoiding all carbs will help. That is the biggest misconception. It’s true that carbs break down into sugar, and that’s not good, but the real problem is poor dieting.”

Jones recommends eating every three to four hours to keep blood sugar levels steady, and exercise. “Exercise helps produce more insulin for the body.”

Class Is in Session

In addition to private counseling, Jones works in collaboration with AmeriHealth Caritas DC to bring cooking classes to its members. But if you think you’re going to watch her do the work, think again.

Cooking classes at the member center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue are interactive experiences that encourage attendees to do the work from washing vegetables to cooking. Attendees leave the class with the proper ingredients and recipes to repeat the meal at home.

Darla Bishop, manager of marketing, communication, and health promotion at AmeriHealth, says the classes are helpful to members who manage chronic conditions. “Nutrition is a major focus for the program that we have. With Charmaine being a registered dietitian she can host hands-on cooking demonstrations to show members who may be struggling with eating better. She can show them easy techniques that they can use at home and tasty recipes that are on the lighter side.” Classes are held once a month at the member wellness center for a maximum of 12 members per class. The classes are free for AmeriHealth Caritas members.

Charmaine Jones’s office is at 100 M St. SE, next to the Navy Yard Metro station. Find out more about her services by visiting www.foodjonezi.com. For more information about the AmeriHealth Caritas cooking and fitness classes visit http://amerihealthcaritasdc.com/member/eng/healthy-living/classes.aspx.

Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.


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