University of Utah launches Doctors Without Borders student chapter

Story and image by ANNA STUMP

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, is an international humanitarian organization whose mission is to expand accessibility of medical care for those affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from health care. These efforts include providing doctors, nurses, logistical experts, water and sanitation engineers and administrators to over 70 war-torn regions and developing countries across the globe.

Doctors Without Borders emphasizes “independence and impartiality.” The organization provides support to those in need regardless of political, religious and economic factors. Working as a private entity allows MSF to follow its own moral code and operate in any way it sees fit. Because MSF is a non-governmental organization, all of the services and operations are driven by the selfless work of volunteers.

Two of these volunteers are Julia Case and Kelsie Lee. The freshman roommates at the University of Utah are working toward bringing a student chapter to life on campus. Both women were exposed to the organization’s work at an exhibition that left them hungry to help in any way possible.

They attended MSF’s exhibition “Forced from Home,” which took place at the Salt Lake City Public Library in late September 2017. The interactive experience was designed to expose the realities of the global refugee crisis to those who attended. While walking through the exhibit, participants gained a closer look at some of the disturbing challenges faced by the 65 million asylum seekers displaced from their homes due to war and persecution.


A tour guide leads participants through the exhibition and shares the hardships of traveling through the Mediterranean Sea.

During the tour, participants experienced what it would be like to gather essential belongings with dire urgency. The group had a 20-second time limit to determine which five items they would take with them on their arduous journey into the unknown. Constrained to only five items, participants were forced to decide which necessities were more crucial. For example, debating between a blanket and water or food and money. This activity gave participants a taste of what a refugee experiences while scrambling for necessities during a time of emergency.

Motivated to act

The exhibition emotionally impacted Case and Lee to the point of seeking ways they could lend their hands to MSF, despite neither of them having any medical knowledge.

“When our guide finished taking us through the exhibit, Julia and I were really eager to do something,” Lee said in an email interview. From here it gets a little blurry, but all I remember was spontaneously writing down that we wanted to start an MSF chapter at the U, and next thing I know we’re here, with the chapter expected here on campus at the beginning of next semester.” The student chapter should begin in the Spring of 2018.

MSF currently has student chapters on campuses across the country that work closely with the organization to unite students who are passionate about MSF’s mission to provide lifesaving care to those who need it most. MSF collaborates with each chapter, and provides the resources needed to plan memorable events such as fundraisers, map-a-thons, film screenings and Doctors Without Borders field staff presentations on campus.

Future goals

Both Case and Lee are hoping to hold up to four events in Spring 2018 semester. One event in particular is a “Walk 4 Water.” During this event, students will walk to raise awareness of the demand for clean drinking water in countries with limited access and help raise money to provide sterile water and drinking wells to developing countries in need.

For Kelsie Lee, fundraising walks are no foreign activity. She herself has participated in a Walk 4 Water and has helped organize a community-wide walk for charity. At the age of 10, Lee went on her first service trip to Uganda. On this trip, she witnessed the hardships faced by those who walk miles for water, struggle to find food and are exposed to sometimes fatal diseases such as malaria.

“Walking for water specifically is such a cool concept because it really puts into perspective the fact that women, men, and kids all around the world walk miles upon miles upon miles for water every day, and sometimes it’s not even clean water. When people come out and get involved in these walks, they are walking for those people,” Lee said.

The freshmen are also working toward having a field worker from MSF visit campus. The volunteer will speak with students and faculty about the organization’s current projects and share the various ways one can support refugees from home. Case is thankful for the opportunity the student chapter will present to students who want to help but have no idea where to start. “This club offers a unique experience of being part of a global organization, and we as students can help with pressing issues on the other side of the globe right from our own campus,” she said.

Both women are eager to further the reach of the MSF program through their projects at the U.

“Doctors Without Borders has been very open to allowing us to not only plan out our own ideas for fundraisers, but also giving us choices as to where the money goes. It could go anywhere from helping the refugee crisis, to medical needs, to water. The options are endless, which is why I’m so proud to get to be a part of something so awesome, that really just wants to help in any way possible,” Lee said.


Teaching nutrition to refugees in the Salt Lake Valley

Story and photos by ZACH CARLSON

Laureen Carlson is an employee for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program through Utah State University’s College of Agriculture. Carlson’s goal is to help individuals and families, especially those who are lower-income, eat healthy and affordable. Carlson said EFNEP is available in every state and most territories. Carlson has been employed by EFNEP since 2013.

For the past four years Carlson has gotten to know many refugees. Most of the refugees she has worked with are Nepalese, but she has also worked with some families from Sudan and other African countries.

When asked what nutrition was like in refugee camps, Carlson said, “They would get packages that they were so appreciative for. But for example, their protein was lacking.” She also added that they would get meat packed in salt. Salt-packed meat isn’t as healthy but does last longer. “Their diet consisted mainly of rice with small amounts of vegetables,” Carlson said.

Once refugees get to Utah they can get the ingredients that they really need to be healthy and provide for their family from a nutrition standpoint. Carlson said one of the biggest problems she faces is getting refugee families to eat complete proteins. Because most families face dietary restrictions due to their religion or customs, they only will eat goat or yak — especially with the Nepalese. These also happen to be two of the more expensive meats to purchase, so many families go without the proper proteins that they need.

Carlson’s goal is for families to eat healthy, not necessarily eating like Americans. “I always try to be their facilitator using their own bread, yogurt, whatever food and spices they regularly eat,” Carlson said.

Often, she tries to combine common foods here with food or spices that refugees know and eat. Carlson said many families make their own yogurt. She will use this yogurt with fruits to make healthy smoothies. One of her other go-to foods is pizza.

She uses bread that the family makes in place of regular pizza dough. “With almost everything we add spices we wouldn’t traditionally use in American pizza. I use theirs,” she said. “They have these tin containers that have all these different spices. Some of them have even brought those when they came because they are very careful with their spices. I would have them use what spices they wanted on their pizza.”

She would then add cheese that meets their dietary standards. This is to add more dairy to their diet. “I don’t think I went into a refugee home that was getting enough dairy,” Carlson said. She added that some children do get enough dairy, because many refugee mothers nurse longer than average here. Most of the refugee families Carlson teaches breastfeed the children until they are about 3, with one family even nursing a child until he was 5.

Carlson only speaks English, so sometimes there is a language barrier in their communication. When she can, Carlson works with a Nepalese translator, Chandra Sapkota. Sapkota often asks for Carlson because he considers her to work well with the families.

Google Translate is an incredibly helpful tool for her to communicate with refugees who aren’t fluent in English when she doesn’t have Sapkota’s help. She recalls one instance where she was teaching a mother, who spoke little English, how to make tuna casserole for her daughter. By using Google Translate, Carlson could communicate by typing in what she wanted to say in English, then it was translated to the mom’s native language. Because she can’t read, Carlson would have Google Translate “speak” the translated message to her.

“You couldn’t tell her to go buy tuna fish because she wouldn’t know. I left her all the cans, everything, so that way she could go match it in the store,” she said. “So, not only did we make it together but you can’t give her a recipe. We ended up having to make it two different times so that she could go through all the steps. In hindsight, I should have had her do voice recordings on her phone,” Carlson said. This is a new technique she has begun using, where she will have refugees record the steps in recipes on their phone in their own language. This helps them re-create the meals cooked together on their own, because they can grasp the cooking concepts better.

A health and hygiene issue that Carlson faces involves proper dental care. “I never saw a grandparent or great-grandparent that had a full set of teeth. There were multiple children that their teeth had rotted and had to be pulled. That was something we would try to bring up and encourage. We really would talk about brushing teeth and things like that,” she said.

Carlson said it is uncommon for a refugee to eat out a lot and get fast food often, but she has taught some refugees who partake in American food. She taught an African refugee who was extremely excited to be here and eat American food. But then he noticed that he was gaining a lot of weight. Carlson said once he realized how much weight he was gaining he immediately stopped eating fast food and went back to the food of his culture. He began working out to lose weight and is back to where he was before he dove into American food.

Carlson said most of the families she teaches make food from their homeland. Most, if not all of them, cook their own food, typically curry, sometimes three times a day. One indulgence that she has had a problem with is soda pop. They particularly love Fanta Orange.

“There’s something about Fanta Orange,” she says. Many of the refugee families thought that Fanta had juice in it and that they were being healthy. They loved that they were drinking juice and that it tasted so good. Except it wasn’t juice. Even when she went back to visit them later after her teaching with them concluded, some families still consumed Fanta Orange very frequently.

Life is hard for everyone, refugees included. For many refugees, their trials and hardships don’t end once they get to a new country. They instead face a new set of challenges that take the place others. A big challenge that many of them face is eating properly. Through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, Laureen Carlson helps refugees get the nutrients they need without spending unreasonable amounts of money.



Working with refugees in the Salt Lake Valley

Story and photo by ZACH CARLSON

Chandra Sapkota lives with his wife and children in Salt Lake City. Sapkota currently works three different jobs. He works as a translator, he helps refugee families with children under the age of 3  at a local organization called Discover, Develop, and Impact (DDI) and he assists students part time at Cottonwood High School through the Granite School District.

Sapkota began educating people and helping parents while he was living in a refugee camp in Nepal. Sapkota lived in this camp for 18 years before the United States accepted him as a Bhutanese refugee in 2009 — one year after America began taking these refugees in.

Once Sapkota came here to Utah he met a friend who was working for DDI who helped him get a part-time job as a translator. Sapkota began to work his way up the corporate ladder and began to get more hours. He quickly became a full-time employee going into homes and doing what Sapkota referred to as “parenting.” This means that he helps the parent give their kid a better childhood, hopefully leading to a better adulthood and life.

“The DDI focuses on education and parenting,” Sapkota said. He goes into homes that have children up to 3 years old and helps the parent raise the children while honoring their culture. How Sapkota helps the family honor their culture varies from background to background, but with most cultures it involves making sure that they eat the proper foods to get enough nutrition without compromising their values on what foods are acceptable.

DDI works with families of all incomes and ethnic backgrounds in the Salt Lake Valley. Sapkota specializes in refugee families that typically fall beneath the poverty line. “I visit and work with 11 different families and spend 90 minutes with each of them,” Sapkota said.

One of the biggest unseen challenges that refugees face is not only getting enough food, but also getting healthy food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undernutrition has been reported in many cases with refugees. The CDC also stated that “although undernutrition is often associated with refugee status, concerns are increasing about overweight/obesity among refugees resettling to developed countries. Overweight and obesity are frequently assumed to be associated with assimilation to a U.S. lifestyle (increased availability of high-calorie foods, reduced physical activity), compounded by lack of nutritional education.”

This is where Laureen Carlson comes in.

Carlson is a frequent collaborator of Sapkota’s, working together to help Nepalese families. Carlson is an employee of the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), whose goal is teaching people and families, particularly those who are lower income, how to eat healthy on a budget.

EFNEP is available in every state and most territories, according to Carlson. EFNEP is funded in Utah by Utah State University in Logan, through its agriculture department.

She met Sapkota while teaching a Nepalese family with whom he was working as a translator. Sapkota contacts EFNEP and asks for Carlson to come and help these families with nutrition. He requests her because she is good with the families and everyone else working for EFNEP in the Salt Lake area has quit, citing low pay for their leaving within the last five years, according to Carlson.

Carlson said she has taught roughly 20 different refugee families about nutrition, most of them from Nepal. She said it has been quite a culture shock for her as well as the families she teaches. She said, “One of the things that surprised me the most was how many people live in these small living spaces. You’ll oftentimes have three or four generations of a family living in a two- or three-bedroom apartment.”

Another aspect of living that astounded her was the sleeping arrangements. “A lot of these families do not have enough mattresses for everyone. In some cases, everyone sleeps on the floor with blankets. One family had couches along the edge of their living room where they slept in shifts,” Carlson said. “Family members who worked the night shift would be sleeping on the couches during the day, then the rest would take the available couches when the others went off to work.”

Laureen Carlson with the cute puppy of a family she was teaching in Kearns, Utah. She is an avid dog lover.

Carlson said that one of the hardest parts of working with refugees is helping them eat healthy while also honoring their traditions and customs. When working with Nepalese families she said that most of them want to eat goat, lamb, or yak, which happen to be some of the more expensive types of meats. “Our goal isn’t for them to eat like us. Our goal is for them to eat healthy and affordably,” Carlson said.

What can be especially hard for some refugee families, Carlson said, is making food for everyone in the family. Carlson said that in every refugee family she has taught nutrition to, the children receive free breakfast and lunch from their schools, due to the family’s low-income status. Carlson said the kids really like the food here and ask her to teach their parents how to make it, which can cause problems at home.

“The kids like some western food like tuna casserole, and the parents are willing to make it for them. The problem comes in with the grandparents and great-grandparents. They only want to eat their home food, which is understandable, but sometimes the kids don’t. A lot of these families don’t have the money to make two separate dinners, so it can lead to a sort of rock and a hard place,” Carlson said.

Sapkota has been an active member of the refugee community in Utah since he arrived here, but Carlson is a much newer addition to the community. As Carlson works with the refugee families she becomes closer and closer with them, with her even being invited to some family parties and functions. Sapkota and Carlson both work hard with refugees trying to help them provide for and take care of their family.

Refugees in Utah face poor nutrition; doctors and farmers prescribe collaborative response

Story and photo by DANNY O’MALLEY

A national program that provides fresh produce to refugee patients in need of nutrition has arrived in Salt Lake City. VeggieRx, also known as the Fruits and Vegetables Prescription project (FVRx), empowers doctors to prescribe wholesome nutrition in the form of fresh farmers market produce to refugees at risk of malnutrition or other health concerns like diabetes.

At St. Mark’s Family Medicine, in the Millcreek area of Salt Lake City, patients receive prescriptions for $10 toward fresh produce. They take the prescriptions just down the street to the Sunnyvale Farmers Market, to be used up to four times. The market also accepts SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which can double the amount of vegetables carried home by refugee patients. The Sunnyvale Farmers Market, an endeavor of the International Rescue Committee through its New Roots farming initiative, is open on Saturday afternoons from July to October every year.

Refugees who are newly resettled face a myriad of challenges, but nutrition and diet are often the most pressing.

Ze Min Xiao, director of the mayor’s Office of New Americans in Salt Lake County, said even the idea of a supermarket can be a challenge to newcomers. Often when a refugee arrives, “suddenly they’re buying processed food, and it’s more expensive and not as good for you. Obesity and lack of vitamins are a problem,” she said.

The transition to the American diet and food culture can be jarring for some. Many refugees struggle to find food they recognize. Familiar ingredients may grow plentifully in other regions around the world, but varieties here in Utah may be nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.

For example, according to cost of living data collected by, fruit and vegetable prices are anywhere between two and 10 times greater in the United States than in Syria and Somalia. And that’s just for ubiquitous produce like apples, oranges and potatoes — anything remotely exotic is exponentially less likely to be carried by local grocers.

Because of programs like VeggieRx, farming initiatives like New Roots and medical outreach through St. Marks, the avenues to help alleviate issues of nutrition and unfamiliar culture are opening wider. The innovative practice of prescribing access to vegetables packed with nutrients is a direct result of addressing the needs of the refugee community, Xiao said. “We can identify some answers they bring as New Americans,” she added.

Similar programs are already coming to fruition all over the country. VeggieRx was started by Wholesome Wave, an organization centered on increasing accessibility to nutrition and health resources. First piloted in Maine and Massachusetts in 2010, the success on the East Coast has allowed Wholesome Wave to partner with organizations in 48 states as of this writing, as well as Washington, D.C., and the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area.

Fiona McBride, senior communications associate for Wholesome Wave, has been with the organization since 2014. “We’re really proud of our growth and impact,” she said in a phone interview. “In 2015, we helped about 150,000 people. In 2016, we reached over 550,000.” She expects that growth trend to continue.

The benefit doesn’t stop at the limit of the prescription value either. Refugees and other low-income families are more likely to buy lots of veggies once they get a little, giving an economic boost to the farmers at the market. “We’ve seen that for every $5 in vouchers, they spend an additional $15 on fresh produce,” McBride said. “Our case workers have said that the families can’t believe what they’re getting.”

Patients in greatest need of nutrition are often children. “It’s really powerful to tackle and prevent problems with diet and health starting young,” McBride said.

St. Mark’s Family Medicine is a program with the Utah Healthcare Institute. Diane Chapman, a nurse practitioner involved with the program, said the link between diet and chronic disease can’t be emphasized enough. The majority of patients she sees are refugees. “It’s my primary professional focus and passion,” she said in a phone interview. Often, she said, clinicians have “little context” for a diet that refugee patients might be familiar with. “Dietary change can be difficult for anyone.”

The VeggieRx pilot provided the opportunity for refugee families to align their diet with food similar to that of their countries of origin, at little to no cost. The pilot ran from September to October 2017, through the end of the farmers market season. Chapman said the program goal was to enroll at least 50 patients, which was met, and now the data can be assessed by the Utah Department of Health.

According to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, healthcare costs related to diet are over $950 billion a year. This is especially dangerous for low-income families including refugees.

Fiona McBride said that’s what the VeggieRx program is all about — spending less on healthcare by treating preventable diseases through nutrition. “We’re really trying to show the power of produce to improve personal and environmental health. The money we save in avoiding extremely expensive health problems could transform the country,” she said.

Utah’s pilot of the program is in its infancy, so the exact impact is yet to be seen at the local level. But it has a huge pool of organizers invested in seeing it thrive. The International Rescue Committee, the Utah Department of Health, Salt Lake County and St. Mark’s Family Medicine have made good headway together. Thanks to everyone involved, refugees can eat healthy and avoid burdensome long-term healthcare costs.

Keep your eyes peeled for updates from the Utah Department of Health in early 2018.

Community remains in the heart of Salt Lake City refugees

Story and photo by HAYDEN S. MITCHELL

All over the world refugees are fleeing their homes from violence, oppression and fear. These families are all looking for a new place to live where they can feel safe. In 2016, Utah became home to a little over 1,200 refugees from multiple countries: Iraq, Iran, the Congo, Somalia and Sudan. The New Americans are experiencing the shock and awe of a new country and culture, places that are vastly different than anything they had ever seen before, according to a PBS story.

When first coming to Utah, refugees have a variety of feelings and emotions ranging from exhilaration to fear. Two individuals, Aden Batar and Romeil Analjok, who have resettled in Utah, discussed how similar their experiences were. They were introduced to a different language, new environments, foreign foods and smells. Add to that, they said the residents of Salt Lake City dressed and acted differently than they had seen before in their home countries. This can create an overwhelming burden for any refugee.


Romeil Analjok, holding a trophy his daughter won playing basketball. Sports helped the family feel like a part of the community.

“It’s America man, of course it is going to be crazy. I did not know what to expect when my family first came here,” said Romeil Analjok, a refugee from Sudan, who created a new home for himself and his family in Utah in 2004. “Language was the biggest problem along with not knowing anybody … so I enrolled in school hoping to learn English and meet new people.”

While at school, Analjok met a couple of people whom he remains friends with today. He was grateful that they interacted with him during his first few days in class. He did not know how they would talk to him or act around him, but they treated him like everyone else, with respect. Analjok appreciated how quickly he made friends. It made the transition from Sudan to Utah easy and encouraged him that he could create a home for his family and be a part of a community once again.

“Romiel’s story is common for many [who are] moving their families,” said Francis Mannion, a priest who has seen an increase in refugee parishioners within his parish. They need somewhere to start.

For this reason, there are organizations like the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Community Services that will help new arrivals. These groups are in place to assist with the transition and make an adjustment easier for refugees coming to the United States.

In addition to established organizations, becoming part of an open and caring community is vital to helping families transition into a new community. Community allows refugees to make new friends, participate in all sorts of activities, or even worship together. Mannion made it clear that faith is not the predominant force that makes it easier for those going through the refugee process — it is community. A community can hold people up when they struggle the most.

“Every week in Sudan, we gathered with our friends and family, just celebrating everything good we had in life,” Analjok said. “I was happy to be a part of something every week … it gave me something to look forward to.”

Analjok said he felt out of sorts until he found a stable, welcoming community. He treasures it. In his community were fellow refugees from the Sudan who generously donated their time to helping him find friends and a new church, Saint Patrick’s, located at 1058 W. 400 South in Salt Lake City. Becoming involved with this church allowed Analjok some networking in the business world, eventually leading to a new job opportunity.

He said finding a new community can be a lifesaver for refugees. Without this connection, families and individuals can sometimes feel like they are on their own. Typically the countries that these refugees are coming from have a strong sense of community. They must rely on each other significantly to survive, eat and exist. This is why it can be such a challenge for refugees in America because it is solely their responsibility to provide for themselves and their families.

“Having a strong, loyal community around you will always make everything easier in life,” said Mannion, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul. “As refugee families come to church through the years, you can see the change happen. They start off nervous and still, and gradually became an active member of the community.”

Aden Batar, immigration and refugee resettlement director with Catholic Community Services, said refugees can have a hard time adjusting because they are coming from a life we have very little knowledge of. Life in countries like Iran, Sudan and Somalia is not easy. Batar, a refugee from Somalia who now helps other refugees in the resettlement process, said it is a real struggle every day for people living there to provide for their families and keep them safe. He said families are forced to flee because they are being oppressed or they fear potential threat and violence. Batar added that most people never anticipate leaving their home and are not prepared when it happens.

Such disruption can negatively impact people and even cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in many individuals, Batar said.

Analjok said, “When we came to Utah we were welcomed by a lot of refugees who came here before us.”  He reiterated the importance of community to his family’s resettlement. “They made me very comfortable and treated me well. It was also nice to see them all doing well,” he said. “It gave me hope for me and my family.”

University of Utah professor and chef collaborate and create ways to spice up their nutrition class

Story and slideshow by SYDNEY BULL

Catch Chef J Looney in action cooking up some of his favorite dishes.

“Follow your bliss,” Chef J Looney said as he lounged next to the fireplace while enjoying a green smoothie.

Looney is a private chef in the Salt Lake area. He caters events and works for the College of Health at the University of Utah as well. He is obsessed with cooking and shares foods from other cultures around the world with a diverse group of students in the Cultural Aspects of Food class, NUTR-3620.

It all started when Looney was a young kid. His father has been in the food service for a very long time and worked with institutional food, in churches, hospitals and schools on a mass scale.

When Looney was 8 years old, his father managed a cafeteria in a church office building in downtown Salt Lake serving between 3,000 and 5,000 meals a day.

Looney said he fell in love with the action in the kitchen and the look of the large stockpots full of chicken noodle soup and the fact that his dad could make so much food for all those people in need.

Once he turned 14 he lied on his application and told his hiring manager that he was 15 so he could be hired as a dishwasher. He went home every night with the stench of grease and dishwater but loved every second of it.

Looney then spent eight to nine more years there working his way up to line cook and then lead cook. He was finally promoted to managing a prime rib and seafood buffet before he decided to leave the food service industry.

Looney said he realized that he was still making minimum wage compared to all of his friends, which swayed him into working for “corporate America” at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in central reservations. He worked there for seven years and traveled to many of its hotels.

He spent the next nine years in UPS management, but when he turned 40 years old he said he felt like something was missing. Looney needed that spark. That is when he decided to go back into the food industry again.

He said his wife was hesitant to let him quit at UPS because the pay in the food industry is low and the hours are long. But Looney insisted it was his passion.

“I just want something more,” Looney said. “I want to do something I am passionate about rather than do something just for a paycheck over and over again. I trusted my gut that it was going to work out.”

Word got out that Looney was getting back into food business. His friend Jason, who owns Point of Sale Retail System, called him up and asked Looney for a list of his top five dream jobs.

Looney said that Jason sent out letters of introduction. That is when Karen Olsen, the owner of the Metropolitan, called Looney and offered him an interview with the restaurant’s head chef. (The Metropolitan used to be the crown jewel of Utah’s fine dining but is no longer open in Salt Lake City.)

However, Looney said he met with the head chef and explained that although he had been out of the food service for 15 years, he cooked consistently throughout that time period and still had a huge love and desire toward it.

He was offered an unpaid shift to see if he was qualified enough to work in its kitchen. Looney, who never attended culinary school, said he walked in with only one knife.

The head chef placed Looney at the salad station, and it wasn’t easy. He said after a whole night of feeling completely stressed and demoralized, the head chef offered him the job as a line cook.

Looney said it was still a bad paying job and had long grueling hours but he used it as an opportunity to learn as much as he possibly could from everyone in the kitchen.

Once the Metropolitan closed, Looney became an executive chef at the Prairie Schooner in Ogden, Utah. At the same time, he also got a call from a friend at the U, who wanted his help teaching a nutrition class focused on ethnic foods.

The class, Cultural Aspects of Food, became extremely popular once word got around on campus that there was a chef cooking food for students. Looney worked with another talented cook, Tahmina Martelly, a chemist and licensed nutritionist who works as a professor at the U

After two and a half semesters, the class expanded to four classes a week and became a significant part of Looney and Martelly’s career. Their teamwork allowed her to spend time in the class teaching the cultural factors of each region while Looney spent time in the lab cooking up different recipes according to those regions.

“Food is like a language,” Martelly said. “Food is a huge part of cultural identity and has a sense of home and helps people connect to a new place and also has a healing effect.”

Martelly’s experience with food hits closer to home than most people in the United States. She is a refugee from Bangladesh and now also works as a program director for after-school tutoring and homework help at the International Refugee Center (IRC). In addition, she teaches a computer class to adult refugees to help them gain experience and find future jobs.

The Cultural Aspects of Food class is important to her because of her experience, knowledge and perspective of different cultures covered in the class. She is in the middle of rewriting the course curriculum because the way she teaches is more personable and relatable than other instructors.

Martelly has done a lot of traveling and has more background with these regions compared to the other instructors. She said she wants to help the department apply knowledge from her experiences and standardize those items compared to just teaching out of the textbook.

“When Chef J and I got together he wasn’t as familiar with the cultural stuff,” Martelly said. “Which is why I did most of the teaching and he did the cooking in the lab. He has a teachable spirit, he talks and cooks at the same time. He is very good at interacting with his students. He is a talented cook but very modest and humble. Most chefs I know have a huge ego. But the more we teach and give background information the more he learns and the more familiar he gets with the recipes and the cultures behind them.”

Chef J Looney found his bliss. So on top of teaching he began cooking for athletes, doctors, families and friends. He said he makes a pretty good living now, to the point where his wife is completely happy and satisfied.

“I started promoting that I can cook meals for individuals and families while also catering events,” he said. “I have a pretty solid client list, about 20 people that I cook for at any given time. On Mondays I go grocery shopping, Tuesday I spend cooking all day and Thursdays and Fridays I spend planning out the meals for the following week. It’s a good gig and the days in between I spend on campus teaching because I want to. That’s basically how I got into the whole personal chef thing and wedding season is coming up so I have a few weddings scheduled for the next six months.”

Looney rarely cooks at people’s houses, he mainly works out of a commissary kitchen on Redwood Road, which gives him plenty of space to prep meals for the week. Around 8 a.m. he and his staff prepare approximately 10 different meals within five hours. Then when completed he and his staff send the coolers off to be delivered to the clients’ door. Typically he makes about five lunches and five dinners per client. However, his bodybuilding clients are a little high-maintenance.

Not in a bad way though, they just require about six smaller meals a day and have a very selective menu to choose from. Because Looney is so familiar with flavoring his meals, it helps bodybuilders spice up their foods without going over their macros, the number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats they consume on a particular day. That is why Looney occasionally offers a Bodybuilder’s Meal Prep Class to demonstrate cooking skills and items that can make their food taste better without sabotaging their physical gains.

Looney is an experienced cook and does his best in social media marketing. But most of his marketing is done by word of mouth because he leaves all of his clients and students feeling not only full and satisfied but also inspired.

Chef J Looney and Tahmina Martelly are a dynamic duo in the classroom and have worked very hard to be successful human beings. They are prime examples of the cliché phrase, “follow your dreams.” But how else can one be truly happy if he or she is not taking risks and living life fully?

“My whole underlying theme to my life thus far is, just do what you love,” Looney said. “I spent 15 years in ‘corporate America’ because I thought I needed a paycheck. And when I really took the leap to follow what I wanted to do made all the difference. And yes I took a lot of risks and it hasn’t been smooth sailing, there’s been some huge learning lessons, a lot of pain, blood, sweat and tears getting there. But I have never been happier in my life. So whatever the price you have to pay to follow your bliss, pay the price. Build your lifestyle around what it is you love doing, not the other way around.”

Zest Kitchen and Bar provides organic dining in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by RYAN CARRILLO

Visit Zest Kitchen and Bar and see some of the amazing organic dishes.


Nestled between some of the biggest chain restaurants in Salt Lake City, Zest Kitchen and Bar provides a dining experience that no one else can.

The restaurant, located at 275 S. 200 West, is reinventing healthy eating by providing a menu free of processed foods that tastes incredible. Everything the restaurant serves is also 100 percent organic.

“Everything’s fresh, and that’s really what I wanted is fresh and organic real food that came from whole foods and not from a box,” said Casey Staker, the restaurant owner. He opened the bar and restaurant nearly 2 and 1/2 years ago.

Staker has crafted a menu of 35 unique items between brunch, lunch, dinner and dessert. The restaurant offers an eclectic fusion of ethnic tastes and American favorites while using healthier ingredients than nearly anywhere else. It also offers a more “grown-up” environment, being for individuals 21 years old and older.

The brunch menu, available on Fridays and Saturdays (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) features perfectly sculpted buckwheat pancakes or a fresh southwest skillet with quinoa, cheese, black beans and fresh pico de gallo, among other entrees. The brunch menu also includes the “best mimosas in town” for just $5, which come in a variety of flavors.

Zest’s lunch menu provides options that are hard to find anywhere else. Selections range from fresh fruit smoothies and small plate items like cheesey Brazilian bread bites to a fresh kale salad and larger entrée items like coconut curry forbidden rice. For people looking for less-healthy health food there is “barely buzzed beehive” grilled cheese, which puts a fresh spin on an American favorite by pairing it with the soup of the day, pesto and seasonal fruit.

The dinner menu mixes things up by offering mostly shared plates or larger entrees, while still featuring fresh salads and perfectly blended juices. This particular menu is home to beet and walnut dip served with fresh veggies, baked mushrooms with cashew cheese and a tomato and eggplant ratatouille that comes with spinach quinoa.

Perhaps the best part of the menu comes after the entrées, soups and salads have been cleared away: dessert. Staker takes the same approach from his entrees and appetizers and applies it toward dessert staples, creating sweet, succulent cakes and tortes. One of these masterpieces is a carrot cake topped with rich cream cheese, shaved carrot and orange peel.

Tim Hurty, a local resident, has visited Zest Kitchen and Bar on multiple occasions. He is fond of the black bean chia patties served on a multigrain bun. Being a dedicated vegan, he was drawn to the restaurant because of its ability to accommodate his dietary needs. At Zest he is able to enjoy a delicious meal without fear of cross-contamination, which occurs when animal byproducts come in contact with any of the ingredients used in the meal.

Being a vegetarian himself, Staker’s menu is completely free of meat. Many of the dishes are also vegan and the staff is currently working to provide vegan accommodations for all their menu items. Not only that, all the dishes are gluten-free as well.

“Naturally by design vegetarian food or [rather] healthy vegetarian food is almost always gluten-free,” Staker said. As a restaurant owner, the needs of his customers seem to be a driving force behind the menu selection.

Billy McMichael is the head chef at the restaurant. Having worked in vegetarian restaurants for 10 years he understands the importance of these dietary restrictions in the lives of his customers.

“The Zest mission is to be inclusive,” McMichael said. “So almost any allergy you have, you can come here and get a good meal anyway.”

McMichael personally likes the challenge that comes with providing healthy food without sacrificing the taste. It forces him to be creative and innovative with the dishes he and the other staff members prepare.

“It’s been nice to come here where it is less about copying meat style dishes,” he said. “[It’s] more about charting your own path, making things that people haven’t done before, working with more ethnic variety, more variety of produce. I can’t just cheat and flavor up a big piece of tofu and put it with some mashed potatoes and say ‘here’s dinner.’”

The restaurant is also nearly free of soy and doesn’t use any peanuts. For individuals with any of these dietary restrictions, whether forced or voluntary, a restaurant with Zest’s knowledge and dedication is heaven-sent.

For vegans it can be difficult to find a restaurant that fully understands the difference between their needs and vegetarians. Vegetarians limit their diet to not eat any killed animals while vegans take it a step further by not eating anything from an animal. This eliminates things like eggs, milk and cheeses. While there are several restaurants in the Salt Lake Valley that can accommodate  the needs of both groups, there are few, if any, that also match Zest’s focus to overall health.

Zest Kitchen and Bar is also the only dedicated gluten-free restaurant in the city, which may come as a surprise as the gluten-free trend continues to grow and has created a multibillion dollar industry. Chain and local restaurants alike are expanding gluten-free menu items, but none have entirely abandoned the ingredient. Salt Lake is home to several bakeries that are dedicated gluten-free but that’s where it stops.

For individuals with Celiac Disease, a severe autoimmune disease that is triggered by gluten, Zest’s commitment offers them a hidden benefit that most people don’t see. The symptoms of the disease can be unleashed with the slightest trace of gluten in someone’s food. That means that even eating a gluten-free meal, if prepared in a standard restaurant kitchen where gluten is also used, can potentially cause symptoms to flare-up since the food may come into contact with gluten in a variety of ways. Since Zest’s kitchen is dedicated gluten-free there is zero chance for cross contamination. No one else in the area can offer that.

What may be most surprising is why Staker and his staff run the restaurant this way.

“I didn’t do this restaurant because I was sick,” said the owner. “I did it because I wanted a healthy place to eat.”

Zest is also “healthy” for the economy. The restaurant tries to buy as much local product as possible, supporting local merchants throughout the year. Since the menu is dependent on fresh fruits and vegetables this can become difficult as the seasons change.

“In the summer we do as much local [shopping] as we can. We still get our greens from a local greenhouse,” Staker said. “We have a special salad that’s always local. [The selection of produce] gets better and better when it gets warmer. Spring, summer, fall we have a lot of local stuff. During winter we have to outsource. Our goal is to support local.”

That commitment to the local community doesn’t stop just in the restaurant’s shopping practices. The staff is active in the community, exposing new people to their food on a regular basis and helping them make better dietary decisions.

During the summer of 2014, Zest operated a booth at the summer farmers market at Pioneer Park, 350 S. 300 West. In 2015, the restaurant is ditching the booth for a more mobile option.

Soon Zest Kitchen and Bar will be unveiling Utah’s first health food truck. The truck will be featured at health conventions like the gluten-free and healthy living expos. Staker is excited for the opportunities the truck will give the restaurant.

He says that public response has been great whenever Zest has had a booth at these types of events, so the food truck response should be even better.

“When we go to the gluten-free expo people say ‘oh my gosh you guys actually have real food. You guys are serving heathy vegetables and dips and stuff,’” he said. “At the gluten-free expo it’s cakes and cookies and packaged stuff.”

The restaurant’s truck is scheduled to debut at the end of April 2015 once preparations are finalized; an exact date has not been set yet.

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