UTHealth School of Public Health Opens New “Seed-to-Plate” Facilities
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health celebrated Thursday the official opening of its state-of-the-art “seed-to-plate” facilities.
Housed within the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, the new facilities came to fruition after two years of planning and construction, thanks to donations made by Don Sanders and Laura Moore, director of the UTHealth School of Public Health Dietetic Internship Program. The facilities consist of three components: a holistic garden, a research and demonstration lab and asimulation classroom. They are designed to work in conjunction with each other and provide dietetic interns with a wide array of learning and training resources to better prepare them for their roles as dietitians with a focus on improving population health.
“These resources … will allow us to develop innovative research, teaching and practice programs to help us improve the population health of Texas,” said Eric Boerwinkle, Ph.D., dean of UTHealth School of Public Health.
The state of Texas currently has the 10th highest obesity rate in the country. According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 36 percent of adults are overweight and 32 percent are obese. With such high rates of unhealthy eating habits and obesity-related chronic diseases in the state, the Dietetic Internship Program aims to curb that trend.
“Nutrition-related diseases—such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer—are significant public health issues, especially here in the state of Texas,” Boerwinkle said. “Many of these can be addressed through nutrition, but unfortunately people don’t know how to prepare healthy foods. In fact, a lot of people don’t know where healthy foods come from. They think green beans are grown in a can. I encourage everyone to go to the garden to see a real green bean.”
The garden contains a wide variety of herbs and vegetables, including lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, Swiss chard and carrots. Dietetic interns, program faculty members and a horticultural enthusiast maintain the garden on a regular basis to ensure the plants are well nourished.
The research and demonstration kitchen, located on the ground floor of the UTHealth School of Public Health building, is fully equipped with all of the appliances and tools a chef needs to prepare a feast. The refrigerator, freezer, double oven and stove are ready for dietetic interns and faculty members to demonstrate healthy cooking by preparing meals that often incorporate fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden.
In the simulation lab, students work with a humanistic robot patient named “Mr. Sims,” who simulates lifelike symptoms. Instructors can control Mr. Sims to sweat, moan, go into cardiac arrest, make vomiting noises and other symptoms to recreate as realistic of a scenario as possible for the students. The idea is to train students to address a variety of medical conditions and get them familiarized with dealing with different patients and their issues.
“These three resources really represent the future of both preventative nutrition and also clinical dietetics,” said Deanna Hoelscher, director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health. “In today’s world, you have to be life-long learners. To be exposed to a wide variety of fields and have the opportunity to engage in these different settings, provides our students with such a richer experience, both in context and in knowledge. That will help them when they get out into practice.”
While the new facilities will give students and faculty members an upgraded learning experience for their curriculum, there is an added benefit. The garden, in particular, provides the Texas Medical Center community with a “place of beauty and nourishment” that isn’t easily found at the hospitals, Hoelscher said.
The garden “brings a bit of humanity to the medical center and nourishes us in many different ways,” Hoelscher added. “As a patient, you’re involved in medical care and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the system. It’s a big system. A lot of it is very sterile. We have great caring physicians here, but we’ve had patients wander out to the garden and just see it as a respite from the business and medical system as a way to get back to nature.”