Nudging Valley residents from 'hungry' to 'healthy'

September is Hunger Action Month around the world; in the Swannanoa Valley Bounty & Soul's fight against the impacts of hunger never ends

Fred McCormick

In 2008, Feeding America - a nationwide network of food banks that feeds more than 46 million people annually - designated September as Hunger Action Month in the hopes of making people more aware and supportive of the fight against hunger.

Here in the Swannanoa Valley, Bounty & Soul has been doing just that since 2012. Participation at the nonprofit organization's five "Produce to the People" markets in the Valley is at an all-time high. This year, through an innovative new health coaching program, Bounty & Soul is taking its efforts to bridge the gap between hunger and health a step further.

Ali Casparian, Bounty & Soul's programs director, founded the organization when she arrived in the area five years ago. Having volunteered with the now-defunct Black Mountain Welcome Table, the certified health and wellness coach began understanding the community's challenges related to food.

Ali Casparian, who founded Bounty & Soul in 2012, prepares a box of food for a woman in Candler whose specific dietary needs require access to food she can't afford. Casparian's organization is providing a service that helps people in similar situations.

"What was really missing was the idea to provide not only access to food, but access to healthy food," she said. "The nutrients we get from nutritious food are what gives us vitality."

Casparian is certified as a health and wellness coach by the Institute of Intergrative Nutrition. She is also certified in food healing by the Supreme Science Qigong Center, which promotes ancient Chinese medicine techniques that emphasizes the health benefits of natural foods..

Through a partnership with MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, Casparian began offering fruits and vegetables for free at St. James Episcopal Church.

"One table turned to three tables, then three tables turned into seven tables because the desire and the need (for healthier food) was there," she said. "I started giving out recipes and doing cooking demos."

Within two years Bounty & Soul had a grant for a truck it uses for its mobile markets, which weekly serve more than 700 people with 7,500 pounds of produce. Distributing healthy food to those in need, however, is only part of how the Black Mountain nonprofit provides assistance in the community. Its programs include UGrow, which provides potted fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants for participants, and Rooted in Health, which provides free resources for a healthy lifestyle.

"Most people want to be healthy, most people want to feel good, most people don't want pain," Casparian said. "Most people don't want to be on medication. And when they're given the resources and the tools and the support (to be healthy), it's phenomenal what happens."

Bounty & Soul began offering classes, attended by hundreds each week, on the health benefits of specific foods, as well as other health and wellness concepts. The organization's free yoga and light movement classes are popular offerings as well. Casparian said participants tell her regularly about positive feedback they're getting from their physicians.

Last year Bounty & Soul received a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to establish a health coaching class that employs a "whole person" approach to wellness.

"With this pilot, as with any pilot, you want to prove success," Casparian said. "Our goal is to collect some impressive data and approach a healthcare organization or someone a little bigger who will see value in this. Because what we're seeing is that conventional medicine is changing, because the way it's working is not working. They are looking at this coaching model and paying very close attention."

Dr. Ben Aiken, a Bounty & Soul board member who helped open the MAHEC Family Health Center in Swannanoa, believes the "health coaching" approach will have a significant impact.

It's "the approach we need to be taking at a local, regional and national level to address the underlying challenging, but critical, lifestyle changes that lie beneath chronic disease and poor health," he said in a statement provided by Bounty & Soul. "It has the potential to be a game changer."

Dee Dimling agrees. She is among the first few clients in the new health coaching program; she learned about it while attending Bounty & Soul's market at St. James Episcopal Church, held on Tuesdays. She was hoping to get advice on how to cope with a difficult financial situation and how to lose weight and improve her health.

Dee Dimling, left, sits with Valerie Holbert recently as part of the 12 weeks of health coaching she's getting from Bounty & Soul.

She was paired with Bounty & Soul's Valerie Holbert, one of the 12-week program's two certified health and wellness coaches.

"What happens to a lot of us is we get caught up in the fast pace of life," Holbert said. "There is a lot of value in just sitting with someone and saying things out loud."

Dimling didn't know what to expect when she started the program. But going into her 10th week, she's seeing significant results, she said.

"As far as my financial situation was concerned, we couldn't do much to change that. But I felt very supported through different coping strategies I was able to learn," she said. "As far as nutrition's concerned, I didn't know before I started working with Valerie where I was going wrong."

Holbert and Dimling meet once a week for an hour and will have a follow-up appointment six weeks after the final session. Each session with each client is unique, Holbert said.

"Maybe one session will really focus on nutrition and I'll give recipes or strategies or how to plan ahead where you can maybe take meals with you," she said. "And then, depending on what's going on with that person, we could have a session where we don't talk at all about food or exercise until maybe when we set goals at the end. Because if someone is overwhelmed with a relationship, an event or finances or whatever the stressor is in their life, then it will be difficult to stick to the healthy habits we're working on."

Dimling sees results from the program in a lot of ways. She has more energy. She's moving around more and thinking more clearly. Perhaps most notable is the difference the program has made in her Type 2 diabetes.

"The main thing (doctors) want you to do is maintain a certain blood sugar level," she said. "When I started the program it was quite high, around 9.3, and it went down after a few months to 7.1, which was good. My doctor really praised me for that. I recently had a check-up, they tested it and it was around 6.5. It's never been that low."

Dimling said she feels "empowered" by her work with Holbert. Though Casparian said the programs at Bounty & Soul are "innovative" and "on the precipice of what conventional medicine is trying to do," she gives credit to Dimling and people like her who are taking advantage of the resources available.

"Empowerment is a funny word," Casparian said. "Dee already had the power. She had it all along. She just needed help to find it. And that's what we do."