Rich in history, but often overly rich in calories and fat, soul food needed a makeover, say Roniece Weaver and Fabiola Gaines. So the two decided to dish up user-friendly SoulFood Plate, their version of MyPlate, the nutrition guide created by the Department of Agriculture and launched by Michelle Obama in 2011.

Weaver and Gaines are registered dietitians and founders of Hebni Nutrition Consultants Inc. of Orlando, and their goal with SoulFood Plate is to help the culturally diverse communities in the downtown Orlando Parramore neighborhood make informed decisions about good nutrition. They created a SoulFood Plate placemat that takes the guesswork out of choosing healthy foods.

The placemat features a color wheel similar to MyPlate, but shows foods that are sorted by categories and color groups. It also offers an eat more-eat less segment, calorie requirements and “know your food portions” information. On the back there’s room for writing goals, tips on how to read labels and nutrition facts and advice on what’s good to eat (and what’s not).

Weaver and Gaines say that the best way to change someone’s eating habits is to create an environment in which they can learn healthy cooking skills firsthand. The two offer community nutrition classes and demos in a state-of-the-art kitchen.

“We feature a different veggie every week, and [participants]go home with all the ingredients they need to make that dish for their family,” says Gaines.

“You don’t know if people are ready for change until you meet someone like Patrick from the hip-hop generation,” says Weaver. “These young people think they’re invincible and can eat anything.”

Weaver and Gaines fixed his favorite collard greens, swapping out the traditional ham hock with baked chicken. And Patrick was a believer. “He ate it and his eyes lit up,” Weaver says.

—Theresa Durrant

To sign up for nutrition classes or to get general information about Hebni Nutrition Consultants, Inc., visit www.soulfoodpyramid.com or call (407) 872-1333.


Chocolate Dreams

Festival of Chocolate visitors immerse themselves in chocolate lore, learning and lusciousness.

“Research tells us 14 out of any 10 individuals like chocolate,” says children’s author Sandra Boynton. Show up at the Festival of Chocolate and you’ll start to believe that statistic is true.

The Festival of Chocolate is a weekend-long event centered around products made from the coveted cacao bean. It’s held in a handful of Florida cities each year; in 2012, Orlando’s will be at the UCF arena April 27-29.

The festival comprises several events in one. At its core is a collection of vendors selling chocolate-related items. Wines, coffees, candies, crepes, cupcakes and cookies are offered. On the premises, you’ll see a chocolate “museum” detailing the history, production and pop culture behind chocolate. Learn about how the bean becomes an almond-studded bar or a steaming cup of cocoa by watching a small-batch machinery in action and talking to a gentleman who roams around  sharing roasted beans.

Free demonstrations, such as how to properly ice a cake, and fee-based hands-on classes such as how to temper chocolate take place throughout the weekend. Brownie bingo, Food Network-style competitions, a Cocoa Couture fashion show down the “yum-way” (the apparel is made of wrappers) and make-your-own lip balm also draw participants’ attention.

In its fourth year, the Festival of Chocolate is the creation of  husband-and-wife team Edgar Schaked and Aileen Mand of Dr. Phillips. Edgar, a third-generation chocolatier, is the franchisor of the Schakolad Chocolate Factory retail chain. Aileen is an event producer specializing in large-scale events. For more information, visit www.festivalofchocolate.com.

— Rona Gindin


Rebuilding our waterways: Oyster bed revitalization going strong

With help from the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with private donations, Volusia County began a massive volunteer effort in 2011 to restore a vital 5-acre section of the Halifax River—an area once plentiful with thriving oyster beds. An eroding coastline and pollution from recreational boats had taken its toll on the coastline, burying the oyster beds in an estimated 20 years of muck and silt.

For an entire year, volunteers led by the Halifax Oyster Reef Restoration Society painstakingly crafted more than 1,600 oyster shell mats that, together with newly planted native sea grass, provided a revitalized habitat for new oyster growth. Mats are produced by attaching 36 (old) oyster shells to a square section of plastic netting; the sections are then woven together, much like a quilt, to form larger sections. Mats are submerged and anchored where healthy beds previously existed, providing a clean and stable structure for new oysters.

Although the project is still in its infancy, water quality is already beginning to improve, according to restoration project coordinator Thad Nicholls. Nicholls, who expects oyster growth in the revitalized area to be at its peak in a little over a year, is looking forward to other benefits the oyster beds will have on the estuary. “Oysters can filter up to 60 gallons of water in 24 hours, improving the quality of water in a short amount of time. This helps the sea grass to thrive, provides habitats and breeding grounds for numerous fish and marine life, including the oysters themselves, crabs and finfish, to name a few.”

With the newly established oyster beds settling into their own and native grasses taking root, the community has much to celebrate this year during the third annual Halifax Oyster Festival April 28. The one-day festival on Manatee Island in downtown Daytona Beach will feature live music, refreshments and, of course, oysters any way you like them.

—Dawn Viola

For more information about the Halifax Oyster Festival, visit www.halifaxoysterfestival.com. For more information regarding the Halifax oyster revitalization project, contact the Marine Discovery Center at (386) 428-4828 or visit www.marinediscoverycenter.org.