RALEIGH, N.C. — Jasmine Westbrooks finds comfort in the kitchen.
"I think of my grandmother and how she's in the kitchen all day fixing all these different dishes," she said.
As a registered dietician, Westbrooks is one of the founders of Eat Well Exchange, a five-year-old national nonprofit that teaches community cooking classes, focusing on healthier versions of cultural foods through recipes that make simple changes.
"A lot of times, when you look up ‘healthy eating,’ you may not find some foods that you may have grown up with if you have a different background or ethnicity in this country," Westbrooks said.
On a recent night, a group of women gathered at Fruit of Labor World Cultural Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, to learn how to cook several dishes in a healthier way.
"We're also making 'Soulful Grits,' where we're going to use spices, like turmeric and cumin and actually putting in the collards and even some kale in that,” Westbrooks said. “And then we'll have some jerk shrimp and jerk salmon to go along with it as well."
For dessert, there is a berry cobbler.
"Instead of using flour, which, there's nothing wrong with flour, but we'll be using oats, which is going to have a lot more fiber," Westbrooks said.
Eat Well Exchange classes take place in-person, like at community centers, or online, via Zoom. The instructors build up knowledge over several weeks of their courses.
Ramona Allen joined and immediately incorporated one dish after making it once in class.
"Definitely the greens. I literally learned that recipe and went home the very next day and made the greens," Allen said, "and it's getting ahead of it because, out there in the world, a lot of people are coming so close to being pre-diabetic and they're not even aware of it."
For breast cancer survivor Justina O'Neil-Parker, learning these recipes takes on added urgency.
"Southern cooking is delicious, but it's not necessarily the most healthy," she said. "When you're a [breast cancer] survivor, there's always the chance that you're feeding hormones, or you're doing things, you're eating certain ways that you shouldn't, that may cause a reoccurrence - and we just didn't want that."
Nutritionist Donnae Ward said it's important for the classes not just to focus on the health benefits for students, but also on what the dishes mean to them.
"I'm originally from the Bahamas and just thinking about how powerful food is, when you talk about food - just not being fuel,” said Ward, who teaches some of the Eat Well Exchange classes. “So, when you think about making a curriculum, you need to think about food in terms of just a powerful statement. It's about culture, it's about family."
Jasmine Westbrooks believes it is also about creating healthier communities— one dish at a time.
"It's the community that wants to change,” she said. “It's the community that wants to be empowered and wants to be healthy."