Amor Healing Kitchen is a trifecta of good ideas. Teach kids how to cook nutritious plant-based meals, ask adults to volunteer to mentor them in the kitchen, and then have a team of angels deliver those meals to cancer patients who are undergoing treatment. The mission combines teen empowerment with nutritional education and community outreach.
Executive director Maria Kelly saw a television news segment about the Ceres Community Project in California and felt galvanized to start a similar program in Charleston. Encouraged by her high school students who said they’d love to participate, she left her job as a teacher with Charleston County School District to launch Amor Healing Kitchen this past fall.
“Once I saw their interest, I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” says Kelly, who did the research and decided she would take a break from teaching and make it work. “For teens, especially teens today and the amount of time they spend being self-absorbed, donating time and being involved in something like this makes you feel good and makes you feel a part of something bigger.”
Amor Healing Kitchen is part of a national network of programs inspired by the Ceres Community Project, which has been at it for 10 years, training 2,300 teen chefs, delivering 518,000 meals, helping 3,700 families, and spawning 12 offshoots.
Kelly says she was unable to become a full affiliate, which required money for training and support from Ceres, but she is listed as an inspired project on the organization’s website, modeling her program after theirs but building it from scratch here in Charleston.
Still in the early stages of establishing her nonprofit, Kelly has quickly connected with a community eager to support her. Dale Snyder at Sweetgrass Garden Co-Op offered her the use of the DHEC-certified kitchen on Johns Island. Food stylist Cynthia Groseclose volunteered to provide recipes. And a bunch of kids and adults have volunteered to cook.
At a teen orientation last month, Gabe Frampton, a 13-year-old homeschooler, eagerly answered questions about kitchen safety cooking techniques and shared stories about his baking adventures. His mother Katie Frampton says he loves to cook and she thought this would be a good program for him to be involved with.
“We are always eager for volunteer opportunities, and we volunteer with the food bank,” says Katie Frampton. “Gabe loves to cook, too, and we have a high family history of cancer, all my grandparents having died from cancer.”
She says that Gabe is her foodie at home, helping his dad prepare meals and baking treats to satisfy his sweet tooth. “He is really excited for this opportunity to cook and learn about healing through food,” she adds.
Gabe was part of an orientation session on a frigid January morning with fellow teen cooks Avery Fun, 15, and Jasper Millis, 13. Kelly, a natural with teens, talked to the boys about safety, cleanliness and cooperation before taking them on a tour of Sweetgrass Gardens.
Because they will be cooking for immune-challenged cancer patients, Kelly explained the importance of washing their hands and using plant-based ingredients. “It’s much more likely for animal protein to be contaminated,” she told them, “so we will be making nutritious and flavorful vegetarian dishes.”
Groseclose, who was acquainted with Kelly through the surf community, is a good fit for the program. Currently getting certified in plant-based nutrition from Cornell, she says, “I’m hoping to be able to use some of the knowledge I’m gaining along with things I already know to create recipes.”
Groseclose says her recipes will be based on whole foods and using anti-inflammatory vegetables such as kale, broccoli and lots of greens. “My dad was diagnosed with cancer and he’s been healthy 10 years,” she says. “That’s when I really became interested in food and health.” They are hoping to use as much local produce as possible.
Nutrition and diet are an essential part of therapy for cancer patients, who are undergoing treatments that can cause nausea and leave them too exhausted and uninterested in preparing meals and even eating. Weight loss, lack of appetite and poor eating habits can work against patients trying to battle the disease.
As Kelly told her teen volunteers, “We’re going to use a lot of vegetables, fruit and fresh flavors to make the food taste good and nourish them.”
A few weeks ago, Kelly got her first chance to serve food to a group of clients and test out her adult mentors.
Sarah Szafranski, a counselor at a local hospital, volunteered and was charmed by Kelly’s enthusiasm. “It’s very contagious,” she says, adding that passing food knowledge on to teens is her favorite part. “I liked the idea of being in the kitchen with teenagers, teaching them how to cook, how to learn about different types of food and what it does to your body and being able to pass that on to folks who are sick.”
Kelly invited the adult volunteers to help her prepare a meal for Hope Lodge, the American Cancer Society’s house on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston that provides a home base for cancer patients and their caregivers who live too far from the hospital to commute. Paul Sykes, a longtime volunteer at the lodge, knows Kelly through Holy Cow Yoga and thought her mission was great. “They were kind of getting started and I said, why don’t you come on down and cook for us. Good for you guys to kick-start your program. And see how everybody is going to enjoy it.”
By all accounts it was a big success. Szafranski says there were about six of them in the kitchen. “We had a ton of vegetables and we were chopping and cleaning them and we made a stew.”
Kelly says they used local collards, carrots and cabbage donated by Wando Organics in Mount Pleasant. “We cooked with only the kitchen mentors, as they wanted an opportunity to get to know the kitchen before teaching the teens in the kitchen,” she says. “We served about 20 people at the Hope Lodge and got lots of great feedback. Two of the patients said they hadn't been able to eat much in the past couple of days and they ended up going back for second helpings of the soup.”
Sykes agrees that the Hope Lodge guests enjoyed the supper. “A lot of people have issues with swallowing and throat cancers and things like that,” he says. “So it’s nice to have a nice easy meal to enjoy. … It was a wonderful night and they did a fantastic job and hopefully they will come back to see us in the future.”
The Amor Healing Kitchen team is gearing up to launch its cooking and delivery program the week of Valentine’s Day and Kelly is amazed at the commitment the volunteers have already made, some agreeing to come every week to work in the kitchen. Clients have signed up to receive their healthy meals, and students are eager to get cooking.
To dress the healthful salad made with fresh produce from Wando Organics, Maria Kelly turned to her favorite food blog Oh She Glows for a tahini dressing recipe.
Lightened Up Tahini-Lemon Dressing
Yield: Just under 1 cup of dressing
1/4 cup tahini
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast or a bit more, to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
1 teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
3 tablespoons water, or as needed
In a food processor, add all ingredients and process until smooth.