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Research project: Can the arts change dietary attitudes?

October 26, 2012

"Diabetes of Democracy in South Phoenix" is a research project designed to examine the efficacy of the arts – specifically, theatrical performance – in changing the dietary attitudes and behaviors of young people at higher risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes.

It was conceived by professors Tamara Underiner and Stephani Woodson of the School of Theatre and Film, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and Seline Szkupinski Quiroga and Donna Winham of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. The project considers the growing trend toward obesity among young Latinos in the Southwest, whose dietary choices are influenced both by their ancestral culture and by pressures to assimilate to a more mainstream U.S.-American diet, in light of recent studies in cultural and social anthropology relating food preferences to cultural location.

Last semester the project used culturally specific cuisine, storytelling and rituals combined with performance art and interactive cooking to spark discussion about the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and share strategies for combating the disease.

Mero Cocinero, the People’s Cook, and his comrades spent most of January in an artistic residency in Phoenix, where they conducted their signature “Cook. Eat. Together.” performance workshops with high school and college students, as well as allied health practitioners. Cocinero is the alter ego of San Francisco-based chef, performance artist and host of “The Cooking Show con Karimi & Comrades” Robert Karimi. The artists provided public cooking demonstrations in various locations around Phoenix, including a performance at ASU’s Tempe campus Farmers Market last spring.

“Since I came to ASU and started working with the South Phoenix community, I have been asked again and again, ‘what do we do about the rising rates of obesity and diabetes among our children?’” said Seline Szkupinski-Quiroga, faculty associate in the College of Nutrition and Health Promotion. “When I heard that Karimi, who I know from working together at Galeria de La Raza in San Francisco, had redesigned his Cooking Show to focus on diabetes, I knew we had to bring him to Phoenix, to share his unique blend of humor, culture and empowerment, and see if it made a difference.”

The artists’ residency was part of a pilot study examining the relationship between creativity, theatrical performance, and changes in dietary attitudes and beliefs.

“Food doesn’t just fuel the human body – it also carries many deep meanings at the level of the individual body, the social body, and the body politic,” said Tamara Underiner, associate professor in the School of Theatre and Film. “We learn what food means when we attend to the places it is eaten, the conversations that occur around it, the ways it is shared, and the stories told by the people who prepare it.”

"Diabetes of Democracy" has been featured on a variety of media outlets, including NPR, and Eight, Arizona PBS. The project was featured on a new program, "ASU Discovers: New Perspectives on Research," that will "go inside the laboratory and out into the community with Arizona State University's top researchers, as they find novel solutions to a variety of challenges."

Megan Todd, a graduate of the doctoral program in Theatre and Performance of the Americas, has joined the team as youth project coordinator. Funding was provided jointly by the Institute for Humanities Research and the Herberger Institute Research Center in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts through a 2011 Seed Grant award.

For more information about Mero Cocinero, the People’s Cook, see, or for more information about the project, contact the IHR at 480-965-3000 or