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Cooking in the library: Indianapolis offers free nutrition classes

Julia Sluis, a nutritionist at the Marion County Public Health Department, creating the sneaky tomato sauce. (Photo by Jennifer Wilson Bibbs for Mirror Indy)

(MIRROR INDY) — The smell of garlic and tomato wafted through the Indianapolis Public Library’s Haughville branch as Julia Sluis diced carrots.

Sluis added the orange vegetables, along with peppers, zucchini and celery, to a simmering pot dubbed “Sneaky Tomato Sauce” — a healthier alternative to your store-bought usual.

Cooking demonstrations like this one on May 14 are part of free monthly nutrition classes offered to Indianapolis residents at parks, gardens and libraries throughout the city. The public health department hosts the classes as part of the Diabetes Impact Project, a partnership among several organizations to support communities with higher risks and rates of diabetes. 

That includes neighborhoods on the northwest, northeast and near west sides. 

“Many of these neighborhoods have been identified as food deserts, where there isn’t access to as many fresh food options,” said Olusegun Ajibabe, a nutrition educator with the Marion County Public Health Department. “What they need most is time and consistent exposure to nutrition information.” 

Community members say the resources are making a difference.

“At first I was sad when I found out I was prediabetic,” said Debi Johnson, 67, a former Marion County resident who drives from Avon to attend classes. “But now I know it’s something I can manage before I get to that stage.” 

Haughville resident Tawonia Taylor, who has a family history of diabetes, agreed. 

“My dad had lots of complications, so I am just trying to live a healthier lifestyle,” the 56-year-old said. 

During a previous class, she and her son Jeremiah received a packet of vegetable seeds to plant at home. 

“We can have our own vegetables,” she said. “That will save us some money.”

[Haughville school uses urban farming to teach students how to start their own gardens

Before the group sampled the tomato sauce, Sluis debunked common myths, including that all carbohydrates and fats are “bad” and that skipping meals is an effective way to lose weight. She recommended focusing on eating healthy meals and moving your body instead. 

“If it’s something you feel like you can’t do forever, it’s probably not a good choice,” Sluis said. “You don’t want to get caught in that diet cycle.” 

Two more nutrition classes are scheduled this summer at the Haughville library branch, Rhodius Park, Municipal Gardens on Lafayette Road and Riverside Park. 

June’s topic is cooking with greens, beans and berries, while the July class will focus on prebiotics, probiotics and maintaining gut health. Call Indy Parks at 317-327-7275 or the Haughville library branch at 317-275-4420 to register. 

The Marion County Public Health Department also offers free appointments with dietitians to all residents. Referrals are not required. Call 317-221-7403 for more information. 

Mirror Indy reporter Mary Claire Molloy covers health. Reach her at 317-721-7648 or email Follow her on X @mcmolloy7.