As healthcare is projected to account for a third of new employment in the next decade, we have the opportunity to build health into our society with new models of care and access; address the social determinants of health head-on; and revolutionize chronic disease and mental health.
Accomplishing all of this, however, calls for inclusion of varied viewpoints and lived experiences in problem solving and decision-making. This is how Onboard Health views sustainable health innovation — through the inclusion of change-makers from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
Onboard Health’s blog is dedicated to giving a voice to these talented individuals hard at work creating lasting change in our society. This post, featuring Shaun Chavis is the tenth of a Q&A series — “How I’m Building” — highlighting members of the diverse Onboard Health community.
You are the founder of LVNGBook, a company that offers customizable, shoppable cookbooks and habit change journals for chronic conditions. Where did this idea come from and how did you bring it to life?
I’m a former cookbook editor and I specialized in healthy cookbooks for Time, Inc. I have a good friend who had symptoms that doctors could not diagnose for years. Finally a specialist told her she had a rare auto-immune disorder, and told her she needed to change her diet for the rest of her life to manage it. The doctor gave her a long, random list of food she could not eat anymore. My friend was so overwhelmed, she literally called me crying asking me for help figuring out what she could eat. She knew the sooner she could eat the way she needed to, the sooner she would feel better, but trying to take a list and turn it into meals is hard.
I did what I could to help her, but in that process I thought, it would be cool if instead of having to figure out this list, she could just have a customized cookbook full of recipes for food she loves to eat, already modified for her condition. And that is where the idea started.
Since then I have talked to other people who have diabetes, cancer, food allergies or other conditions, and 70 percent say their doctors also only give them a list of what to eat or what to avoid and that it is hard to figure out what to make with it. Some people told me it took them a year to learn how to eat for their conditions. It is hard enough with one condition – imagine if you have two different lists! Yet, according to the CDC, a third of adults in the US have multiple chronic conditions.
I believe that instead of starting people on a lifelong journey with tears and frustration, it is better to build positive associations with diet change and make it culturally relevant so people can embrace it and even share it with the people they live with. Maintaining cultural and social connections is also part of health.
To make it happen I pulled together a team that combined technology with print publishing, and awesome recipe developers and a photography team. The recipe developers specialize in healthy home cooking that is fast, affordable, and meets specific dietary criteria. We also had a registered dietitian to approve every recipe, and a behavioral scientist to help make sure we created books that would help improve adherence to diet change.
You also host a podcast called Forklore, which features cookbook author. Tell us about that project.
I wanted to start a podcast that highlights how people tell stories and address societal issues through cookbooks.
Most of us think about cookbooks as just a resource for cooking dinner. But cookbooks tell stories about migration, war, family, our culture, and so much more.
In Forklore, we’d basically go to a cookbook author’s kitchen and cook a recipe from their book together while talking about their cookbook. My guests have included chefs like Alon Shaya, Jacques Pépin, Virginia Willis, Todd Richards, and others. I put the show on hiatus in part because of COVID.
All of your different work centers around food in some way. Can you tell us why this is so important to you?
I grew up in a military family; my father was an Army officer.
I grew up experiencing food as a universal way to connect with people, whether it was gathering with neighbors around the bread truck that came on base when we lived in Germany, or whether my parents were hosting a formal dinner to help build relationships.
I also grew up appreciating farming and growing food, because my grandparents were sharecroppers and my great aunt ran a dairy farm. Later, learning how to cook and create great flavor became a tool for me to create a sustainable, healthy lifestyle for myself that my family also enjoyed. All these experiences taught me how food is so central to our lives, and I enjoy exploring that. It really touches every aspect.
What does Onboard Health’s mission — “building an inclusive health workforce” — mean to you?
To me, a diverse health industry is another level of liberation for people of color in the United States. We need diverse groups of leaders to help shape public policy, organizational policy, to do research, to lead care, and shape how we communicate with patients and the public. We need people who aren’t afraid to be inclusive—I think sometimes people who want to be inclusive don’t know how, or worry about what other stakeholders will think, and lose sight of the impact that exclusion is having on people’s lives. Good health is liberating, and policies that serve everyone are liberating.
How have you seen the field of health equity shift since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?
I can definitely see there’s more recognition of the challenges around health equity; I think COVID-19 and the media stories about how lack of equity affected COVID-19 care for different communities helped shine a light on these issues.
I think to some extent the health industry is still too overwhelmed with the crisis of the moment to put major infrastructure changes in place.
I’m disappointed and concerned that Congress couldn’t pass the recent round of COVID-19 response funding.
Where are you drawing inspiration from lately?
My securities attorney has a weekly support group for her clients, other social impact entrepreneurs. She’s also recommended a few books—Thinking Big by Tara Mohr and The Fear Book by Cheri Huber that have recently been inspiring. Also I just started taking art and creativity courses on Domestika – I am obsessed! There is a really good one about the creative process called La Fantastica.
What hopes do you have for health equity in the coming year?
I’m looking forward to better broadband access across the country from the infrastructure bill investment.
There are all kinds of communities, rural and urban, that need it, and access to the Internet is increasingly access to health care.
I really hope more hospitals and care providers also dig into the price transparency rules that are rolling out—I think it will be so helpful for people to be able to make informed decisions and at least have information to help them navigate health care without damaging their financial health. I think people need much more help with that.
As we are all constantly learning, relaxation and rest are of equal import to our work. How do you recharge?
To be honest, I’m really bad at it! And I know better. I like to drive out to a state park that’s about half an hour from my home and just enjoy the water and trees. I also doodle sometimes. In January I decided to make that part of my relaxation, and I got some art supplies and I do art just for fun. (That is where the Domestika obsession started.) My art is nothing I’ll ever show anyone. Lately I’ve had a theme going–I’ve been drawing about a little being from outer space who comes to Earth only to explore our seas and oceans… sometimes it’s just a fun colorful thing, sometimes it is cathartic.
Where can the Onboard Health Community connect with you online?
Shaun Chavis owns LVNGbook, a company that creates and licenses healthy recipes. She is currently managing editor of Found, a health startup that offers weight care. Shaun has worked or written for Serious Eats, Time Inc. Books, Real Simple, Health, Sharecare, How Stuff Works, AllRecipes, SouthernLiving.com, and CookingLight.com. She's passionate about addressing inequities in nutrition and dietetics and creating dietary advice that reflects America's increasingly diverse population.