The land of opportunity manifested itself as a one-bedroom, bed bug infested apartment in the Bronx, New York—a long way from the familiar bustling streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. At age 10, I had no choice but to adapt to a novel environment and learn a foreign language. Upon immigrating from Argentina my family had little money. Our belongings consisted of merely one suitcase of clothes for each of us. I shared a bed with all three of my siblings. The makeshift dinner table was a cardboard box. We purchased our clothing from second-hand stores. I developed a frugal lifestyle, not by choice, but because we needed to survive.
My family rarely enjoyed the luxury of eating out, so as the eldest I took on the responsibility of cooking for my family. I recreated Argentinian dishes to satisfy their homesickness. Empanadas mendocinas, a classic Argentinian staple, were always a favorite. This traditional dish is a baked dough stuffed with beef, onions, paprika, cayenne, cumin, hard-boiled eggs and oregano. Through the chopping, slicing and mixing, I discovered that cooking for others brought me genuine satisfaction.
In college, I continued cooking at Elijah’s Promise, a soup kitchen in New Brunswick, NJ. Volunteering at Elijah’s appealed to all my senses: the crackling of garlic on the skillet, the fragrance of fresh basil, and the sight of golden apple pie. The chef generously shared his knowledge and tips with me. Boil leftover vegetables in water to create stock for soup. Freeze onions before chopping to minimize tears. Quickly ripen bananas by storing them in a paper bag. At the soup kitchen I not only developed my culinary skills, but I also cherished the opportunity to serve meals to those in need.
Over time I began to recognize the familiar faces of frequent visitors. I initiated conversations with a “how is the food?”, which gave way to a glimpse into their lives. A man revealed to me that the medical bills due to a heart attack rendered him homeless. His distress was palpable; he explained his story with agitation and pressured speech—from the uncertainties about his lack of housing to the precarious nature of his health. Throughout my two years at the soup kitchen, I realized this man was an example of the pervasive financial and medical stressors throughout society. As a first-generation immigrant I understood his financial stressors, and I also knew what it was like to experience medical hardships.
With the flick of a switch, the sharp, black contrast of the image illuminated the room. The mammogram resembled a breast, but the intricacies within the image left me dumbfounded. The oncologist understood the significance of each pixel. She saw shape, form and density that served as clues for her diagnosis—my mother had breast cancer. How could a woman with a negative genetic work-up be diagnosed with cancer in her early 40s? The physician proceeded to recommend ways to incorporate lifestyle changes for management. I desired to apply my interest in the culinary arts to support my mother’s lifestyle changes. I made it a priority to read books, such as How Not To Die, to learn how food can treat and prevent disease. I minored in nutrition, and I defended a research thesis on protein and amino acid metabolism. With unwavering dedication and a desire to learn, I came to understand the power of nutrition in relation to health.
Nevertheless, evidence-based nutrition research is of little value if it cannot be practically applied in the kitchen. An individual requires both culinary skills and affordable ingredients to harness the benefits of nutrition. Thus, I strive to create delicious recipes that are good for the body and the wallet. Save your money on unregulated supplements and ultra-processed foods (hopefully you’ll invest your savings in a low-fee index fund in a Roth IRA). Cooking healthy does not mean spending all day in the kitchen or blowing your whole paycheck; nutritious meals can be efficient and economical.
As a future physician, I desire to educate patients on nutrition. But, to my disappointment, nutrition education in medical school is all but nonexistent. In fact, a 2019 JAMA article states that in medical training, “time devoted to nutrition is limited, with an average of 19 total hours over 4 years.” The US Burden of Disease Collaboration identified poor nutrition as the leading cause of death in the country, yet nutrition training is still lacking for physicians. I believe that, at a minimum, physicians should have a basic understanding of nutrition in order to initiate vital conversations with patients.
I co-founded the first Culinary Medicine Interest Group at Penn Medicine to improve nutrition education. The group’s mission is two-fold: 1) to teach medical students practical culinary skills and 2) to learn how to effectively educate patients on nutrition as well as cooking tips. In just one afternoon, over 50+ medical students signed up to support the group’s mission. Ever since its inception one year ago, the interest group continues to attract attention from medical students, supportive faculty and outside organizations.
Culinary Medicine partnered with a non-profit organization to create a culinary-based volunteer opportunity at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Medical students have the opportunity to both prepare and eat nutritious meals with pediatric patients. The recipes are mostly vegetarian and utilize affordable ingredients. Featured recipes are black bean quesadillas, tabbouleh with grilled pineapple and Thai coconut curry. Are you hungry yet?
Despite Culinary Medicine’s success, I desired to share my passion for nutrition and cooking beyond Philadelphia. On my day off from the hospital I taught myself website development and design. Thus, fiscalfoodie.com was born in August 2020. Fiscal Foodie features affordable plant-based recipes backed by evidence-based nutrition research. The combination of budget-friendly ingredients combined with nutrition education is designed to save you money on meals and medical costs. Fiscal Foodie’s mission is for you to start investing in your wealth and health.
The WCI scholarship money would help pay for my medical education. Even if money was not a factor, the opportunity to take a WCI course is priceless to me. Developing financial literacy is incredibly powerful, and I’m excited to share the information I learn for financial independence with my medical colleagues.
I used to feel a lump in my throat whenever a conversation about my financial background came up. My heart would race during cancer lectures as it reminded me of my mother’s cancer. It wasn’t until after reading Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich that I understood the true potential of my desire to promote food as medicine. Napoleon Hill states that “the starting point of all achievement is desire.” As I continue my medical training I desire to continue the fight against chronic disease one delicious bite at a time. After all, an apple a day keeps the doctor away.