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ClarkLindsey's Executive Chef, DeAngelo Newson, presents a special Hanukkah dinner for residents: beef brisket with latkes and sufganiyot. In 2025, ClarkLindsey food personnel will test out culturally diverse seasonings as part of a KCH research project.
ClarkLindsey's executive chef, DeAngelo Newson, presents a special Hanukkah dinner for residents: beef brisket with latkes and sufganiyot. In 2025, ClarkLindsey food personnel will test out culturally diverse seasonings as part of a KCH research project.

KCH research: Raj partners with ClarkLindsey to test culturally diverse seasonings


For many culturally diverse older adults, reluctance to enroll in long-term care facilities may start in the cafeteria. 

Mina Raj, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, surveyed 140 Asian American family caregivers and found that one of the biggest obstacles for their relatives living in long-term care is the lack of culturally relevant food options. 

An upcoming research project from Raj and her team will put an international range of seasonings to the test at an eager local retirement community.  

Raj will organize a live culinary workshop at ClarkLindsey, a retirement community in Urbana. The workshop is aimed at educating ClarkLindsey’s food personnel how to incorporate culturally diverse seasonings (i.e., herbs or spices) into common dishes. Afterwards, personnel and residents will learn about the seasonings and taste the modified meals for themselves.  

“I realized I need one place that is willing to work with us,” Raj said. “If you can build evidence in one place and show something works, you can have that data to start convincing others a model like this could work.”  

The hope, Raj said, is the workshop will provide some proof of concept for other long-term care facilities that are trying to enroll a more diverse clientele, while potentially reducing food waste and promoting cultural inclusivity.  

The study is funded by a two-year grant from the McCormick Science Institute, which sponsors research on the health effects of culinary herbs and spices. The population at ClarkLindsey, with its longstanding research connections with the College of Applied Health Sciences and Illinois at large, is ready and willing to participate. 

“As people grow older, often the dining experience is the highlight of their day, having good food with good community and good conversation,” said Laura Edwards, vice president of strategy & innovation at the nonprofit retirement home. “I’m really excited to see where this goes.”

A logical connection 

When she began exploring the topic with registered dietitians and food service directors in long-term care facilities in a project funded by the Center on Health, Aging, and Disability, Raj met some resistance to the idea of incorporating a more diverse set of ingredients into LTC menus. 

Professionals she surveyed worried that lack of cultural knowledge among their food personnel and the cost of ingredients would pose significant barriers to a culinary revamp, especially if their resident populations were majority White and most familiar with American/Western cuisine. 

However, the consequences of excluding dietary desires of culturally diverse older adults could be wide ranging, Raj posits. Many populations of these cultures will need significant institutional care in the coming decades, and refusal to eat the food at long-term care facilities could lead to negative health outcomes, including frailty. This can often place substantial additional demands on their family members to prepare and deliver meals.

A leading candidate for collaboration emerged just across town. The College of AHS’ Wendy Bartlo, assistant director of strategic initiatives and research relations, serves on ClarkLindsey’s board. She connected Raj with Edwards, who organizes research opportunities at the nonprofit retirement home. 

Edwards, an AHS alumna who obtained her B.S. in Community Health in 2012, began working at ClarkLindsey as an intern just before graduating. She’s seen the frequent research collaborations with College of AHS and Illinois led by an astute, participatory resident population, and this project fit the bill perfectly. 

“Whenever we hear about interesting research that could benefit the lives of older adults, we are very interested to know more, because it’s our mission to ensure older adults can live their best lives,” Edwards said.  

According to recent data, most ClarkLindsey residents are connected to the university in some way. In 2018, 42 percent of them were Illinois alumni and 57 percent were current faculty or emeriti. More than a quarter of the near-300 residents had reportedly participated in Illinois research. 

“If there’s an opportunity to participate in research, our residents are very eager to get involved,” Edwards said. “Why these projects are so successful is these [professors] feel like they’re defending their dissertation again, because they’re getting questions right and left.”

ClarkLindsey’s executive chef, DeAngelo Newson, already experiments with cross-cultural dishes with his staff. Residents usually choose between a traditional “option A” for dinner or a more adventurous “option B”— recent examples include Indian cuisine, oxtail, and Hanukkah-themed latkes and sufganiyot. 

“I anticipate it being a popular and exciting experience for our residents and for our staff as well,” Edwards said. 

The plan

This year, Raj and her team, including her doctoral student Ammarah Mashhood and undergraduates Sabeen Sadruddin and Harshita Varanasi, will conduct another nationwide survey of dietitians and food service personnel working in long-term care to understand their awareness of culturally diverse seasonings and ability to prepare meals with those ingredients in mind. 

In 2025, planning for the workshop will commence. 

In the current agenda, ClarkLindsey food personnel will be treated to an educational session on the use and history of the seasonings on day one of the workshop delivered by chefs from the McCormick Science Institute. Then, they’ll witness two demonstrations from South Asian and Hispanic/Latin American dietitians on culturally tailored meals that are both diabetes-friendly and heart-healthy, followed by taste panels and acceptability surveys.

(Luis Gutierrez-Munoz, a nutritional sciences master's student, will help develop these specialized recipes.) 

The meals will include common vegetables and culinary staples such as green beans, potatoes and rice, prepared and seasoned in different ways, Raj said. She’s particularly excited to see how personnel and residents respond to the educational part of the exercise, and whether their cultural awareness shifts after the workshop. 

“We want to emphasize the “why” in this workshop. Most trainings on diverse cultures focus on the “what,” but when it comes to food every culture has a rich history of culinary traditions and norms. Teaching about, and ultimately incorporating culturally diverse seasonings, could present a meaningful, and low-cost, approach to raising awareness among staff and sense of belonging for our diverse older adults,” Raj said.

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