Cooking As Therapy

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Valerie Herskowitz and her son Blake. Photo by Rick Karlin.

Ask any foodie and they’ll tell you that cooking is far from a chore. For most it is relaxing and therapeutic. (Cleaning up on the other hand…) That’s true not just for the home cook, but in hospitals, businesses and schools as well. Cooking is increasingly being used in a variety of institutional settings for everything from job training to recovery.

Therapeutic cooking has become increasingly prevalent in the treatment of mental illnesses as well as addiction. Cooking allows patients to have something to look forward to in rehab, and allows them to focus on something else besides their addictions and feelings of distress, depression, anger or anxiety. At The Cottages of West Palm Beach, an addiction treatment center focusing on drug and alcohol rehab and intervention, therapeutic cooking classes are offered twice a week.

Many patients enter treatment with severely diminished health and extreme nutritional imbalances. The program allows them to gain greater independence, raise their confidence and gives patients the ability to continue living a healthier lifestyle following rehab. Courses are often partly aimed at teaching healthy cooking and eating skills to help patients who often are facing chaotic lives. Counselors say the classes also soothe stress, build self-esteem and curb negative thinking by focusing the mind on following a recipe.

According to chef Patricia D’Alessio, who leads a cooking therapy class, “It gets them to focus on something other than stressful emotions, or what was going on in their day. It redirects their thought process to focus them on the process of cooking.”

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Mental health professionals are also including cooking or baking classes as part of a larger treatment plan that can also include analysis or medication for people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems.

“If the activity is defined as personally rewarding or giving a sense of accomplishment or pleasure, or even seeing the pleasure of that pumpkin bread with chocolate chips making someone else happy, then it could improve a sense of well-being,” Jacqueline Gollan, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, reports.

Researchers have also examined the effects of cooking on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease and found that cooking can be extremely beneficial in treating such patients. That’s no surprise since food and the act of cooking often has powerful meaning to older adults.

Think of how often you’ve tasted something that takes you right back to your childhood. For many people with Alzheimer’s food and cooking may provide a pathway to memories. A recent study found that not only did the regular cooking classes aid the patients/clients participating in the study, but the smells of the food cooking evoked memories for others. Food is often associated with feelings of love, pleasure and enjoyment, and brings back memories of holidays, celebrations and family.

Cooking can also be the pathway to independence for many with special needs.  Easter Seals sponsors a culinary arts high school program for ages 14 through 22 with autism spectrum disorders and other special needs. The students participate in daily classes focusing on academics and culinary training, both in the classroom and in a vocational kitchen. Students learn skills such as sanitation, job preparation, store/stock room coordination and maintenance, and food preparation.

Students often segue into jobs with major corporations, such as Hyatt Hotels which has a specific program developed in collaboration with the Florida Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Division of Blind Services, Division of Workers' Compensation and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Culinary Training Program (100 hours during a two-week period) is for individuals with disabilities who are at least 18 years old, drug-free, ineligible for traditional training programs due to disability or lack of high school diploma. Trainees become temporary employees of Hyatt and receive a salary in addition to certificates of completion and a state food-handler's certificate. Performance is evaluated daily with ongoing evaluation and feedback.  Upon completion of the program, job placement assistance is provided within and outside of Hyatt.

The Chocolate Spectrum Boutique and Academy (6725 W. Indiantown Road, Jupiter) offers artisan chocolates, gourmet chocolate-inspired pastries, beverages and coffees. In many ways, it’s no different from any of the other candy and gourmet chocolate shops in South Florida. There are numerous delicious treats to tempt you to break your diet. However, at Chocolate Spectrum the goodies are made, in part, by adults with autism and special needs.

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For adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, The Chocolate Spectrum Academy offers a formal 12-month chocolate, pastry, barista and restaurant services vocational training program where students can learn about chocolate production, baking and beverage preparation.  This direct instruction and apprenticeship program may lead to employment with The Chocolate Spectrum Boutique.

“This is a dream come true,” said Valerie Herskowitz, the company’s owner and a pastry chef, who is also a speech pathologist and the mother of an adult son, who has severe autism. “The Chocolate Spectrum began as an online only model, but with such amazing demand for our products, it just made sense for us to open a retail store.”

The Chocolate Spectrum Boutique and Academy holds weekly chocolate-making classes for children and adults, including those with special needs. In addition to being available at the store, gourmet chocolates are available online. For more information call 954-980-0134 or go to TheChocolateSpectrum.com.

For more information on vocational training for those with disabilities, go to rehabworks.org.


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