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Article posted: 11/20/2012 8:17 AM

Fox Valley Food for Health cooks for cancer patients

By Sammi King

The menu is set. Familiar smells begin to fill the house. Mouthwatering desserts sit on the counter waiting for the final encore on Thanksgiving Day.

The culinary countdown has begun until you can sit down at the table and indulge in all your family favorites.

Sadly, for some with cancer, the very thought of preparing a big meal is too difficult to imagine. Others struggle with loss of appetite. The day can be especially hard knowing that other family members have to fend for themselves.

With no desire to eat, it's hard to plan meals and cook, even when you know your health depends on eating properly.

Mary Fremgen, a registered dietitian, and Susan Leigh, a former corporate executive, realized there was a need to help those who are ill. The two formerly worked together at the LivingWell Cancer Resource Center.

They have created Fox Valley Food for Health, a new not-for-profit program that provides weekly plant-based meals (with fish or chicken) to those in need, created by high school culinary students. The students learn how to cook these healthy meals along side qualified chef mentors.

Fox Valley Food For Health is patterned after the Ceres Project, a successful program in Northern California.

"Not only are we helping those in need, but we are also teaching these high school students how to grow and cook nutritious meals," said Fremgen. "They also learn about caring for others and giving back to the community."

According to the organization, there are more than 10,000 identified cancer patients in Kane County. Malnutrition can be a major challenge for those going through chemotherapy and radiation.

Once the Food For Health idea was planted, the two enterprising women began to put everything together, creating a board of directors, securing funding, volunteers and products in kind.

"Everything just seemed to fall into place," said Fremgen.

A successful food drive at Trader Joe's not only garnered food items for the program, but also added a large number of gift cards that enabled the group to purchase fresh and frozen food items.

Restaurateur Jon With offered his new Geneva restaurant, Tavolino, for a fundraiser and Cadence awarded the group a $10,000 grant.

The biggest problem was finding a kitchen where the students could prepare the meals.

Enter Roquette America Inc. Through a mutual friend, Susan Leigh was able to connect with an executive of the corporation. Roquette America, Inc. offered the group the use of two kitchens -- one for prep and cooking and one for packaging, at its new Innovation center on the east side of Geneva.

"It is really a beautiful facility," said Leigh. "It's a pleasure to be able to teach our students there."

Most of the students for the pilot program were chosen from the Geneva High School Culinary Club. The students do prep work on Monday evening, then cook Tuesday evening. When all the food is prepared it is taken to the second kitchen for packaging. The students sanitize snap-ware containers, package the food and load the containers into Thermal totes.

Then a group of seven adults, known as angels, pick up the food-filled totes and take them to the seven clients. The clients must transfer the food into containers that are oven safe. The angels are encouraged to not just drop off the food but make a connection with the client.

The students realize that they are helping cancer patients, even though they never have the opportunity to meet them. Many of the students hope to pursue careers in the culinary field and relish the opportunity to learn about making healthy meals alongside accomplished chefs.

Olivia Block, a senior at Geneva High School, plans to go to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., next year and pursue a degree in restaurant management.

"I take culinary classes at the high school," she said. "I love to cook and I like the idea of cooking to help people who need help."

Nila Kannankeril, a junior, was busy creating a parsley, lemon and garlic infused oil for the fish dish.

For Nila, the experience is doubly rewarding.

"Sometimes my mom has to work late, so she made a deal with me," she said. "If I do the cooking, she'll do the dishes."

For some students, like juniors Jessica Prainito and Lindsay Whitted, the opportunity to learn a new style of cooking was important.

"Be sure and stir that slurry, Jessica," said Jack Creamer, a mentor chef.

Did Jessica know that a cornstarch thickener was called a "slurry" before this class?

"I was more of a baker," she said. "I like learning these terms and learning a new way of cooking."

Creamer is just one of the chef mentors involved in the program. A retired senior executive at McDonald's, Creamer has always enjoyed cooking.

"One of my first jobs was working with a chef in a 700-patient hospital in Rhode Island," he said. "When Mary asked me if I wanted to do this, I immediately said yes."

Creamer, who has a friend going through cancer treatment, realizes the importance of a program like this.

Many of the students also shared stories of relatives who had gone through their own struggle with the disease.

Tomorrow's menu will include turkey with healthy sides, including a sweet potato mash and a pumpkin custard. The menu will incorporate cancer-fighting foods made with love by a group of people who care about the ones receiving the food.

"We know the isolation that people feel when they are sick and we don't want them to fall through the cracks," Leigh said. "We want to connect them with those who can give and show them that we are a community who cares."

Fox Valley Food For Health hopes to double the pilot project in January. For details, email info@fvffhp.org or visit the Fox Valley Food For Health Facebook page.

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