The African Diet Pyramid and Cooking Classes (Our Ancestors Ate Farm-to-Table Before It Was Cool)

How ever did our ancestors survive before the vast selection in the Publix frozen food aisle? Before the every-corner convenience of McDonald's? Before pizza delivery???

Well, they managed to slide by somehow, and probably for the better. In fact, according to food-friendly nonprofit Oldways, we should be digging into the past for some inspiration on how to eat better today.

Oldways, whose tagline is "health through heritage", is an organization that promotes healthy eating based on region-specific food pyramids. Most recently, Oldways has crafted a series of cooking classes around its African Diet Pyramid. The classes are currently being piloted in 15 cities across the U.S., one of which is right here in Fort Lauderdale.

"We're trying to reclaim and revitalize African food heritage, to go further back in time than traditional 'soul food'," said Sarah Dwyer, Program Manager at Oldways.

This ain't no fried chicken, guys. The African Diet Pyramid is rich in beans, leafy greens like spinach and kale, and tubers, such as sweet potatoes and yucca. The 6-week class series aims to introduce the common foods that make up the pyramid to attendees, explaining each one's historical significance and nutritional value. The second portion of the class is dedicated to the good stuff- cooking an easy recipe for all to enjoy.

The Fort Lauderdale classes are unlike the rest of the pilots, however, because they're being taught to a group of children rather than adults.

"It was something organic that just came up," explained Dywer. "We've got this class with kids, and then we've got a class with senior citizens. We're experimenting to see how much reach this program can potentially have."

Around 10 kids, ages 4-5, at Paradise Child Care Center in Fort Lauderdale are getting schooled on Oldways' homegrown diet pyramid. A small group of 2 to 3-year-olds join the class for the second portion, to taste the food and learn what each item is called.

"This is where patterns start," said Tracy Anne Spence, Director at Paradise Child Care. "This is the age where there is potential to influence life-long eating choices."

Spence explained that the class structure had to be modified a bit to suit an audience of youngsters. "We're taking it slow. These kids are very visual learners, so we use a lot more pictures and images to explain ideas about the food groups."

The kids are given handouts to take home, presumably to share with their parents. There is also a night scheduled for parents to come visit Paradise and learn for themselves what the African Diet Pyramid is all about.

The classes began on October 8, and will continue every Monday for the next six weeks. And so far, so good, Spence reported.

"I'm thrilled to be a part of this project and the children love it so far. We've just started to go over the different parts of the pyramid, and they were completely caught up in it, asking so many questions."

We think we can guess what sort of questions. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, kids, but no, you shouldn't eat more than two sweets per week.

So far, Oldways has created Mediterranean, Latino, Vegetarian and Asian Diet Pyramids. The Taste of African Heritage, however, is the first diet pyramid to be incorporated into a cooking series. After the initial 15 pilots, the success of the program will be evaluated, Dywer explained. Once it goes back to the drawing board for any necessary changes, the program will be made available nationwide for interested parties to teach, from faith-based organizations to traditional schools.

The idea is that, for centuries, people in regions all over the world managed to maintain a healthy diet based on what was available nearby. Over the last several decades, the availability of new goods has catapulted; however, we've lost our way a bit on the nutritional side of things. Convenience, it appears, is now killing us.

"Our hope is that participants will realize that there are better options out there than fast food that can be easily prepared and purchased on a budget," said Dwyer. "And it's taking people back to their traditional gastronomic roots, which we think people will find very special."

Check out Oldways' website to learn more about the diet pyramids and future cooking classes.

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