By Porter Mitchell
When West End farmer Lovey Gilliam’s mother was undergoing chemotherapy for her cancer, Lovey was shocked to see how her diet declined. She lacked the energy and the time to cook, so she relied heavily on fast foods and convenience foods–to the detriment of her health.
Alarmed at her mother’s worsening condition, and unable to leave her Atlanta farm to tend to her mother full-time in New York, Lovey suggested that she get a Crock Pot to make cooking at home easier. It worked. Lovey’s mother began cooking more and more at home, using the Crock Pot to make hearty, hot meals for herself with only minimal effort. Her mother began to slowly regain her strength and her health.
Lovey knew her mother couldn’t be the only senior who turned to fast food because they didn’t have the time or energy to cook. Lovey approached Morehouse School of Medicine, and in 2018 they conducted a study of local seniors’ diets. The results were shocking. The study uncovered an epidemic of poor nutrition and diet amongst seniors, with many of them relying primarily on fast food for nourishment. This unhealthy diet exacerbated illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes, and created a vicious cycle of declining health, declining diet, and declining quality of life.
Lovey knew that these seniors needed an immediate intervention. What if what worked for her mother could also work for other seniors? Lovey teamed up with the senior healthcare center JenCare to launch Project Madeline, named after Lovey’s mother.
Project Madeline provides participating seniors at JenCare centers with a Crock Pot, a monthly class on healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, and on culinary skills, as well as a hefty bag of fresh produce from Lovey’s farm.
It’s the second Project Madeline class, and the seniors sit at tables set up in rows in the farm’s outdoor classroom. They chat about the sunny April weather, the dozen or so chickens pecking and scratching in the pen behind them, and the straight rows of almost neon-green vegetables growing in the farm’s raised beds.
Lovey and her volunteer Susan Cowser-Bailey bustle about, making sure the seniors all have a glass of cold iced tea or fruit and herb infused water before the program begins.
“Many people come to me and tell me, ‘I don’t want to take medicine.’ And I tell them, what are you doing to not take medicine?” announces Lisa Graham, an RN/BSN and diabetes educator who works with JenCare as she walks in front of the group.
Lisa’s talk on exercise, the importance of proper hydration, and healthier culinary substitutions clearly resonates with the seniors, who eagerly raise their hands and ask her a myriad of questions on cooking methods, food additives, healthier drink choices, and on demystifying the wild health claims of fad foods like alkaline water.
Lisa leans hard into her point that eating healthier, exercising more, and drinking more water doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor—small changes add up. “People tell me, ‘well I don’t exercise, I just walk a little’—that is exercise!” she exclaims.
Lisa’s presentation is followed by a Crock Pot cooking class from Chef Mwandisha. She shares anecdotes of her own journey to healthy eating, easy cooking tips and tricks, and how to create more exciting vegetable-based dishes as she cheerfully chops sweet potatoes and bok choi. Lovey passes out samples of Chef Mwandisha’s sweet potato, greens, and apple Crock Pot dish to the seniors, who nod and “Mmm!” in approval. At the end of the class, the seniors receive Mwandisha’s recipe and an overflowing grocery bag of Lovey’s produce. They chat and laugh with each other and swarm Lovey, Lisa, and Mwandisha with more questions.
“I want to be healthier, so this is great. And I can share this knowledge with others!” exclaimed Diana Williams, a West End senior.
“This is my second class, I attended the one last month as well. The Crock Pot has really worked for me! I can’t wait for the next class, I definitely don’t want to miss it!” says Lydia Beasley excitedly. Her friend, Tina Demere, a tall woman in a colorful blazer, pulls out a long, leafy stem with bright yellow flowers from her bag. “I’ve never tried bok choi before, but I really like it. It’s great in salads!”
The phrase “food is medicine” gets tossed around a lot. We hear it on the news, on online think-pieces, in conversation amongst our friends and family. But what does “food is medicine” mean? What does it actually look like to see health and wellness through the lens of diet? What is “food is medicine” in action?
Project Madeline is food is medicine in practice, and a farmer is at the forefront of it.
“We have more growers and gardeners than we do grocery stores—we can create and thrive in our community by eating from it,” explains Chef Mwandisha.
Farms like Gilliam’s Community Garden not only steward the land and provide produce, but they are critical players in a community’s health. By providing fresh fruits and vegetables, a space to come and learn, and by partnering with other community organizations, small farms can catalyze positive change in their communities.
Lovey’s mother is in remission now. A ballerina who owned her own ballet school in Harlem, she is finally able to dance again. Her hair, which was snow-white before chemo, has grown back a remarkable jet-black. She credits her renewed vitality and her recovery from chemotherapy to her improved diet.
After the seniors board the shuttle to return to their homes, Lovey leans against the outdoor classroom’s railing. She gazes at one of her hoop houses, its shade cloth rustling quietly in the breeze, and turns and says firmly, “If you don’t make time for your health, you will make time for your illness.”
To learn more about Gilliam’s Community Gardens, visit www.gilliamscommunityfarm.com.