EAST PROVIDENCE — If someone starts a fan club for chef Stephanie Duquette, Barbara Genese would be a strong candidate for president. As she awaited the lunch that Duquette and her staff were preparing one recent day at PACE Rhode Island, she sat near the dining room and raved about the food served there.
“We have these wonderful, healthy creations coming out of the kitchen, and they are freshly made every day,” said Genese, 65. “You never know what kind of new creation she’s coming out with, but it is a welcome change and you feel a lot healthier after you eat your meal. And she’s always encouraging us to give her our opinion on her meals.
“And if there’s anything we would like to see on the menu, she changes it. So, you know, we love Stephanie and we love the fact that she’s willing to work with all of us.”
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Lunch on this day was roasted tomato basil bisque, pan-seared salmon with spring herb pesto, roasted vegetable quinoa, herb-roasted sunchokes and a dessert of chocolate mousse, all prepared mostly from locally sourced, fresh ingredients. Duquette works closely with Farm Fresh Rhode Island and other agencies devoted to sustainable local farming and healthy eating.
Like Genese, diners at the PACE site live with multiple chronic health conditions such as diabetes and obesity and typically do not have the financial means or culinary expertise to prepare healthy foods of any kind, let alone mouth-watering dishes. Some live in places where healthy ingredients are not sold in local stores.
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“Stephanie makes a good, good meal,” said Chester Poole, 61, who was joining Genese for lunch. “The proportions are right and everything tastes really good. Fantastic.”
Said Juana Kollie, 79, a native of Liberia: “This is the kind of meal I want to eat. It can be well-prepared. I like it.”
Passion for fresh, locally sourced food
Trained at Johnson & Wales, Duquette came to PACE after working as executive chef at Portsmouth Abbey School. Before that, she worked locally for the Pinelli-Marra Restaurant Group and 20 Water Street, and at the Pepsi World Headquarters in Purchase, New York, just north of New York City.
“When I saw this job advertised, I saw it as an opportunity to bring fresh local, nutritious, healthy, culturally diverse food to a population that’s often forgotten in [addressing] food insecurity,” Duquette said as she stirred sizzling pans in the new PACE kitchen, which could pass for the back of house in a good-size commercial restaurant.
“They’re older, so people forget about them and don’t realize that nutrition is still part of their health every day, and it’s important to them,” Duquette added.
Duquette said her general food philosophy can be boiled down to: “Why can’t everybody have fresh, local health food? Everybody deserves it. It’s something I’m very passionate about.” Food can be medicine, she asserted.
For the elderly population who come to her “restaurant,” Duquette said, “they can benefit from the nutrients, the vitamins and the minerals that we provide to them every day. This is their main meal. So to be able to give that to them on a daily basis is very rewarding in general.”
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Wide range of health care provided
The food program operates inside a large building that PACE bought and renovated to provide not only food but also an array of medical, dental, social, rehabilitative and other services that help frail elders to continue living independently at much lower cost than a nursing home would be. PACE also has centers in Westerly, Woonsocket and Newport.
A nonprofit health plan for people 55 and older, PACE Rhode Island was founded in 2005 and employs more than 150 professionals who speak 10 different languages. It is funded through Medicaid and Medicare.
It serves 378 participants and provides services including “care coordination from a team of skilled gerontologists; adult day care in East Providence, Woonsocket, Westerly and Newport; transportation to doctors’ appointments and to the day center; rehabilitation services; access to medical specialists; medical supplies and full prescription coverage; and home care and nutritional assistance,” according to marketing manager Mary K. Talbot.
“The average age of our participants is 75, and many of them have lived difficult lives before they come to PACE,” Tom Boucher, chief of external affairs, wrote in an email. “Eighty-nine percent of our participants qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid, and about the same number have a mental health diagnosis.
“They take eight daily prescriptions and have six chronic conditions on average. With the comprehensive care we deliver, however, PACE-RI participants can continue to live at home for an average of four additional years, even though they qualify for nursing home care when they join.”
“Hiring Stephanie was a critical component to the future of our nutrition program,” PACE CEO Joan Kwiatkowski told The Journal. “She has the Johnson & Wales credentials, the real-world experience from her years at Pepsico, and she is personally invested in our mission. Whether it’s increased energy, weight loss, less dependence on medication or smiles on their faces, participants demonstrate the success of the program each day.”
Melissa A. Simonian, rehabilitation and nutrition services manager, said many participants, before leaving the workforce, regarded food as “something that they grabbed on the go as they were working three jobs — something that was quick, filling and convenient. Food was just something to fill their bellies on most days. We needed to reteach many of our participants that food is also what fuels our bodies. It has healing properties.”
‘Food as medicine’
During her career, Genese worked as a retail manager. A stroke in 2019 upended her life, she said.
“It was scary,” she said. “But they have really worked hard to bring me to my strongest self.”
Kollie also suffered a stroke, more than a decade ago.
“When I was young, I worked with the government, and later on I turned to do my own work as an auto mechanic,” he said.
Poole worked as a mechanic at a bowling alley. A strong appetite, he said, led to health complications.
“I usually overate,” he said. “I’m not overeating any more. And I’ve lost about 30 pounds.”
“The people we see each day are medically complex and often living in food deserts in the community,” said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tsewang Gyurmey. “Many join PACE with heart disease or high blood pressure, and sometimes diabetes.
“As medical professionals, we know that many of the symptoms of these diseases can be moderated by food consumption or by the quality — and quantity — of food consumption. Diet goes hand in hand with medication and movement. We look at food as medicine here at PACE. It’s part of the whole equation in a participant’s health and quality of life.”