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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

A Conversation About When Food is a Part of Recovery

Kandi Messinger, health educator, WVU Cabell County Extension Service, teaches nutrition and cooking basics to those recovering from substance abuse so they are more able to support themselves and their families once the program ends.

Kandi Messinger is a health educator for WVU Cabell County Extension Service. She teaches a nutrition and cooking basics class for those going through the Cabell County drug courts program. Kara Lofton spoke with Messinger about why alternative education and life skills training is an important piece of recovery. 

LOFTON: Why is it important to teach people in recovery nutrition and cooking skills?

MESSINGER: Well first of all, they are abusing the substance. They do not really think about their nutrition and certain substance that they are addicted to. They don't have any appetite, so they do not eat. And some of them do not have any life skills of cooking. And some of them do have kids. So when they get arrested and get in drug court, sometimes they lose their children. So they really want to improve their cooking skills and nutrition so when they do get their children back they can feed them well and feed themselves well.

LOFTON: So walk me through when you first start meeting with a class, what do they learn and how do you gain the trust of those in the class.

MESSINGER: They come in -- it’s just it's low key. I tell them about the classes that I teach and like one on one, we kind of go around and tell about themselves and they usually tell me it's their class. I tell them that's their class. If they want to take time out and talk about something, we do…mostly about nutrition but if they want to talk about other things we take time to do so. And then we do a lesson and then we get hands on cooking.

LOFTON: Why is it important to start teaching people life skills around food?

MESSINGER: Well because it's always about food. Every time we get together it seems like we are gathered around food. Family get togethers, church gatherings, anything. So I use the USDA My Plate. So that's where I usually teach all my lessons from. And fruits and vegetables, whole grains dairy and protein is great for us and lots of people aren't doing that. They are getting lots of processed food. So I try to teach them what they should be getting and how much they are getting. And we do a recipe with it.

LOFTON: Food is often the center of social gatherings. So how much of the classes that you're teaching are teaching people nutrition and how to cook and how much of it is giving them a new support system of people who are also in the same journey that they're in.

MESSINGER: Well we teach basic nutrition, but we give them recipes. So lots of people are using the recipes when they are going to these gatherings. They're making things and sharing it with everybody at these gatherings. The nutritional value -- I met two of the daughters of one of my participants and they were raving over a strawberry parfait that their mother made them so they can also pass it down to the individuals and gathering's also.

LOFTON: Do you feel like people who participate in the program come out with friends and support system from other participants?

MESSINGER: Yes. Well while they are in drug court it's like a class -- they all stick together. So it's like a 12-step program and they are in a group and they do everything, kinda, together. So they all become friends. And all the support system that they can get even just from me. I love teaching these classes but I also love being a support system to them. I recently went to one of their graduation programs at five of them graduated they are completely clean -- they've gotten their job, they've gotten a vehicle and they've got a home and their children back. So I'm very, very proud of them.

LOFTON: When you are soliciting feedback from participants what do you hear from them that they didn't know at the beginning of class that they come away from at the end?

MESSINGER: Actually, the most important thing is how much they are supposed to eat, what the portion sizes are and about sugary drinks. Lots of them like the Monsters and such, the energy drinks, and they are loaded with sugar and they were really fascinated with how much sugar that all these pops and Monsters had and they were really concerned and really surprised.

LOFTON: What do you get out of teaching the class?

MESSINGER: I love my class. At first when I first started I thought I'm not ever going to be able to teach a class because I would get so nervous just getting up to make an announcement somewhere. But the more I got into it, the more I seen that people were interested in their nutrition, the more research done the more feedback I get from them positive feedback. It's rewarding. And I also have learned a lot through my classes. I didn't even really know how much sugar that you were supposed to have or how much sugar was in sugary drinks or how much we were supposed to eat. So I've actually improved my health also.

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