“How do you turn down someone who says ‘I’m hungry’?” asks chef Amy Cohen. How about if they’re a cancer patient whose treatment is giving them a myriad of symptoms from nausea to fungus of the tongue that make normal food impossible to consume?
Once a week in a gleaming A&A Kitchen facility in St. Helena, a group of teens and adults gathers for an afternoon of culinary compassion, making incredible menus for just such people.
Currently hosted by St. Helena Hospital’s Martin O’Neil Cancer Center, A&A Kitchen, and the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, this project is highly rewarding ─ and promises to grow. Under the direction of chefs Amy Cohen and Amanda Tuttle, young participants are cooking and delivering meals for cancer patients in treatment at MOCC.
The young cooks, who are recruited by NVYAC and come from local public and private schools, home schools, and service groups, range from grades 5 to 12 and are across the demographics (and style) spectrum. The consistent factor is that the kids are participating because they want to, because they love the project. “They’re volunteering because their cousin or aunt or somebody had cancer, so they want to be involved,” Cohen says.
So far, 37 kids, seven college students, and ten adults have volunteered with the program, with several becoming regulars. They’re involved in all aspects of the program from nutrition education to menu development to problem solving ─ and, of course, culinary skill development. NVYAC executive director Tom Amato has been impressed with the young volunteers. This program is one of the most powerful I have seen,” he says, “with a learning curve that is fast and intense as the kids step up to the plate to do a phenomenal job.”
In turn, Cohen is “the consummate auntie,” developing relationships with the teens that include interactions ranging from the exchange of menu ideas through the week to online games of Scrabble! “It’s fun to get in there and watch these kids get a sense of accomplishment,” she says. A trendy teen with a “yeah right” attitude who refuses to eat anything green might join the project, and a couple hours later their mom shows up and asks what they made. Cohen loves it when the response is, “It’s like a kale salad – try this!” and the mom’s jaw drops.
Amato sees the project as the perfect place for this kind of transformation. “Many of the teens involved have had difficulty in traditional settings and are thriving with the personal attention, opportunity to be involved in making a difference, and training of caring mentors,” he says.
A story that sums up both the project and the kids’ commitment comes from a moment when the group was discussing possible names for the project. One young participant didn’t think the name should be in English. With a little research, they came up with “alimento di amore” ─ which in Italian means “food of love.”