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Instructor’s Certification Expands Culinary Medicine Education at Brightwater and in NWA

November 12, 2021

Erin Szopiak, culinary instructor at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville, Arkansas

When Chef Erin Szopiak joined Brightwater in 2017 as an instructor and registered dietician, she arrived equipped with a master’s in nutrition and dietetics and an impressive history of working her way up the hot line to assist in opening new restaurants in St. Louis, Mo. In the summer of 2021, Chef Erin added Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist (CCMS) to her list of impressive credentials, an achievement that is helping expand culinary medicine education at Brightwater and throughout Northwest Arkansas (NWA).

As a dietician who is certified in culinary medicine, Chef Erin has an in-depth knowledge in nutrition and culinary techniques and is qualified to advise patients on how to adopt healthier diets that fit practical budgets, schedules and tastes.

“I was excited to pursue the certification because I know the combination of culinary and wellness knowledge is valuable,” said Chef Erin. “Before I started the certification process, I felt pretty confident about the culinary side and the nutrition side, and I was ready to learn more about the medical side emphasized in the CCMS curriculum and utilize it at Brightwater and throughout our community.”

Chef Erin Szopiak teaching at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville, ArkansasChef Erin in the classroom

As a CCMS, Chef Erin incorporates her knowledge of health, nutrition and culinary medicine into Brightwater’s curriculum, aligning with the center’s holistic approach to the culinary arts and making it unique among other culinary schools.

“Brightwater is a center for the study of food, meaning we want students to gain a well-rounded knowledge, not just of how to cook or bake, but to understand food in a broader sense. One of the primary reasons we eat is to nourish our bodies, so incorporating knowledge about how cooking can benefit health seems like a natural fit for any program dedicated to studying and celebrating food,” said Chef Erin. “Not many other culinary schools have focused on integrating culinary wellness into their broader community, but Brightwater has.”

Chef Erin plays a large role in developing and strengthening Brightwater’s partnerships with NWA healthcare providers, teaching culinary medicine to medical students and healthcare professionals.

“Right now, we work a good deal with University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). When I first connected with UAMS, the medical students came to Brightwater for a cooking class once or twice a year. This past spring, I had the opportunity to co-teach a full eight-week culinary medicine course for the UAMS medical professional students using the Brightwater kitchens and the Health Meets Food curriculum,” explained Chef Erin.

University of Arkansas Medical Sciences students at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of FoodUAMS culinary medicine students 

As the concept of food as medicine continues to grow, many medical professionals are finding their nutrition education to be lacking and are seeking further training. Physicians know their patients need to adopt healthier diets, but they often lack the skills and experience to guide patients on how to improve their diets. Chef Erin’s culinary medicine courses provide NWA medical professionals with practical nutritional knowledge to pass on to their patients.

Resident physician Dr. Joseph Malhis took Chef Erin’s Culinary Medicine course through UAMS and found the class to help him better communicate with his patients. “I took this course to be a better advocate and healthcare provider for my patients who have diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia,” said Dr. Malhis. “It’s easy for me to tell patients what to eat, but I may not really get the point across. Participating in this course and learning healthy alternatives to otherwise not-so-healthy classic dishes, allows me to relay this message to my patients in a way that is more tangible.”

Chef Erin Szopiak teaches a culinary class at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville, ArkansasChef Erin in the classroom

Chef Erin also partners with UAMS Community Health and Research to conduct trainings for public school staff, early childhood education centers, and community meals programs of NWA. She has also conducted cooking demonstrations for Mercy Healthcare Systems’ diabetes group.

Through her teaching efforts at Brightwater and in NWA, Chef Erin is hopeful that more people will find joy in cooking and sharing nourishing food. “Sometimes just exposure to new flavors, new recipes and new techniques can make a difference in one’s perception of what food is all about,” explained Chef Erin. “I’ve had students make progress with their own health goals in my Culinary Nutrition class. My hope is that others find their way to health through cooking as well.”