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Casseroles, community building, and health policy

So, what exactly do casseroles have to do with community building, neighborhood revitalization, and nutrition policy? IPS alumna Joy Twesigye '11, who is spearheading the Charm City Casserole Cook-Off Nov. 12, explains in the interview below. Twesigye studied health policy at IPS before founding Turning Point Policy, a professional community development enterprise. She is also a women's health nurse practitioner and a volunteer Maryland State Co-Coordinator for Postpartum Support International.

The cook-off is Nov. 12, 1-3 p.m. at the St. Francis Community Center in Reservoir Hill. 

Q: What's the genesis of the casserole being an instrument of change in the community? When did you decide on that dish as your concept? Was there any academic literature or case studies to suggest this might work?

A: It is sort of a sideways story. I’ve been doing birth support for over 10 years and found that the postpartum period was a transition that could be rough for both providers and families. About five years ago, I began to kind of obsess about transitions of all kinds. I spent a lot of time studying them, talking to people about them, and looking at some cross-cultural attitudes about them.

After a while, I began to draw upon my church ladies’ role modeling and would show up with food.1 Food is an amazing entre into someone’s home. For example, someone would have a baby — I’d bring over food and because I was there, the mom would ask me if I could watch her breastfeed because she was worried she was doing it “wrong.” Perfect — we could sort things out right there and not let things linger until there was mastitis or whatever. Someone would move into the neighborhood and I would bring over brownies. Anytime I locked myself out, he would help me break into my apt.

This all seems irrelevant — but if you think about health extending beyond individuals, then there is a place for elevating the importance of informal networks. There is a host of literature on networks and how they influence health. “Casseroles” are a great vehicle for this theory because they are inherently meant to be shared and thereby are good vehicles to promote community building. It’s also really practical. Casseroles are not pretentious. Conceivably, anyone can make one. Everyone has eaten a casserole and has a tale to tell about at least one.

Q: In your expert opinion, who makes the best casserole in the world?

A: Church ladies and possibly Paula Dean.

Q: What kind of casserole do you plan to make? (Will there be a secret ingredient?) And if it's not impolite to ask, how do you rate your chances of winning this competition? Are there any casserole cooks that have you worried?

A: Actually, it is pretty funny because the casserole I plan to make I can’t even eat. I became allergic to cheese in college but I feel like I need to honor the church ladies and make a breakfast casserole that was the HIT of my church growing up in Ohio. P.S. It is not healthy. I would so not rate my chances of winning — I’m there to have fun!

Q: What led you to work with
Whitelock Community Farm?

A: After
giving my talk at Ignite Baltimore I began to talk to other people who are interested in food policy or just food in general. Rebekah Kuk (Whitelock Community Farm Board member) and I were introduced by one of the Ignite organizers, Kate Bladow. I had Rebekah and her husband Justin over for dinner. As I’ve been saying, bonds are forged with food, so the next steps were really more organic than anything.

Q: How does the Charm City Casserole Cook-Off fit within the larger mission of Turning Point Policy?

A: It’s about looking at what you’ve got and figuring out how that is going to get you to your next destination. It’s about taking what we know in the policy sphere and seeing how it works in real people’s lives. So for me, it is a fun expression of the company because it shows that you can have fun with policy.
Q: I noticed you're listed as "founder and lead agent." Is there a reason you avoided the traditional corporate title of CEO or director? What was appealing to you about "agent" over these other terms?

A: I’m drawn to action. I’m trying to convey that I’m an instrument of change and also taking responsibility for seeing something that needs to be better and actually doing something about it.

Q: If you could be one tool of government action, what tool would you be? (This one is a joke …)2

A: A skillet. Loans' often forgotten sidekick

1 Twesigye's father is an Anglican priest and she grew up in the Episcopal Church. A women's group that is part of the Episcopal church helped Twesigye's family escape political persecution from Idi Amin.

2 Twesigye was a teaching assistant for IPS Professor Lester Salamon's The Policy Tools course last spring.

IPS Blog Editor J.B. Wogan is a second-year student at the Institute for Policy Studies. Email him at

Follow the IPS Blog on Twitter @TheIPSBlog.

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
I hadn't really thought about casseroles being a bonding food to be share but that makes sense. Pizza is like that, too. One issue I have with casseroles is that so many are unhealthy. I used to love my mom's tuna casserole with cream of mushroom soup topped with crushed potato chips. How awful is that?
# Posted By Leonel Sanke | 11/6/11 2:54 PM
You are right that casseroles can be unhealthy but with little creativity they can be made with half the calories and still have the comfort food factor that people love. Same with pizza--there are a million ways to make it. But the key is when you learn how to do it yourself they options are way more than what a pizza chain can provide.
# Posted By Joy Twesigye | 11/8/11 11:19 PM
Absolutely agree with the previous comment. casserole can be cooked in a healthy way: use natural ingredients, avoid unhealthy fats and pay attention to food combining. There are a lot of recipes out there. Healthy pizza is not a mockery.
# Posted By Sean | 1/1/12 12:53 PM
I don't think that casseroles are unhealthy. It is all about the way you prepare food. Should be fresh, not too salty, too oily and fatty and it is one step closer to healthy.
# Posted By Magdaline Nevada | 1/5/12 8:30 AM
Good One but i still believe, When it comes to winter comfort food, it's hard to beat the wonderful flavours and aromas you get from slow-cooked casseroles
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