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Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Killing Cancer In The Kitchen

On a crisp fall morning driving through the hills of south east Ohio, Jim Warner talks about his new mission: to bring the message of a whole-food, plant-based diet to every doorstep. Trained as an executive chef and currently the Program Director of Food and Nutrition at the Wexner Medical Center, Warner now travels the state in the James Mobile Education Kitchen.

The newest research out of the James Cancer Institute shows how eating a whole-food, plant-based diet can both help prevent and treat certain types of cancer. Understanding the barriers that exist to teach people about science and nutrition, the James has started the mobile kitchen to deliver this knowledge to everyone.

On this particular morning, Warner was headed to the Chillicothe Fire Department to teach first responders how to practice healthy eating habits. Other days, you can find him on a school ground in the Hilltop, where he works with the Highland Youth Garden to teach the students how to grow fresh vegetables and prepare healthy meals. Warner and his team are spreading the message far and wide with a goal of empowering people of all ages with cooking skills that will help them live a healthy life.

“It is important to remember that simply eating more fruits and vegetables will not cure cancer. One of the most powerful things that a plant-based diet can do is empower patients and give them back a sense of control. We know weight control is an important concern for some cancer survivors, and with the low caloric density of a plant-based foods, this type of eating pattern is beneficial.”

It may sound simple to tell people the benefits of a diet that revolves around plants, but it’s another thing entirely to show them. Because our culture is saturated with fast-food, microwave meals, and sugar, it can be very difficult to educate people on changing what for so long has been considered the normal American diet. Warner has a multi-faceted uphill climb.

“Unfortunately, our culture tends to demonize one thing at a time. 30 years ago it was smoking.”

These habits begin early, and once established can be difficult to change. Warner knows all too well the enculturation process behind the deep-set American habits.

“[It starts] slowly with cute characters and advertising during cartoons, hooking kids on unhealthy food at an early age, food with toys and prizes in the box. We need to teach parents that this is misleading. It is not healthy… When kids reach the age to think for themselves, their palate is already formed and it’s almost too late.”

Another large obstacle in the path toward a healthy diet is the national issue of food deserts. Food deserts refer to any location, usually urban or rural, where grocery stores are few and far between. This leads many living in struggling communities where resources are scarce to choose among fast-food and packaged meals.

The lack of basic nutrition, combined with inadequate public transit, makes eating healthy simply unaffordable and inconvenient. Warner said that without a grassroots effort to support community gardens, farmers markets, food banks, and donations, many neighborhoods and towns will continue to be victims of the current cycle. The problem is vast, but Warner shared that the Mobile Education Kitchen has connected with the Ohio State Extension Services to discuss opportunities for additional food and nutrition education in the Appalachian region of Ohio. Though it may be an uphill battle, he sees progress and momentum among grassroots activists and community leaders.

“You see such a nice cohort of people who really want to see change… I trust there will be a dedicated group of people who will see this movement through, beyond [the point of] a trend. I have met a number of amazing young community gardeners whose passion for sustainably grown produce is inspiring. Culinary schools throughout Ohio now offer plant-based curriculums, and the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Huron, Ohio is blazing the trail with their farm offerings and creative classes.”

The genius of the mobile food kitchen is the casual, interactive cooking demonstrations designed to make cooking and eating healthy both fun and delicious. Warner told me that eating plant-based is often assumed to be more expensive. However, the cheapest and most protein-packed foods are rice, beans, chickpeas, soy, and dried fruits. Learning how to shop and read labels is almost as important as getting comfortable in the kitchen.

The key to a successful transition is to continue to try new foods, diversify your diet, and meal prep to help fight cravings and save time.

“On a Sunday afternoon, food prep a big pot of black beans and rice. Roast a few sweet potatoes, make some green beans. Plan more deeply into your week so you aren’t tempted and you have an easy, healthy meal ready to eat.”

Warner and his devoted team want to prove to people that cooking with vegetables doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice flavor. Winter may seem like a tough time to start adopting a new cancer-fighting lifestyle, but today there are endless cook books, blogs, and restaurants specifically devoted to the plant-based movement.

And this is a wave that The Mobile Kitchen is riding. When Warner works with communities where urban gardens are growing, he sees the spark.

“When people start gardening, they gain a whole new respect for food. They see it come from the ground or off the vine. It’s almost an epiphany moment for them.”

He speaks fondly of kids’ faces lighting up when they try a fresh raspberry or zucchini for the first time. After a few sessions with the James Mobile Kitchen, one Columbus school changed their food service provider to one that included more fresh fruits and vegetables for the student lunches. This daily habit-building is exactly the slow success Warner knows is possible.

“I have a picture as my screensaver of a young student eating a homemade kohlrabi fritter with a guacamole and Greek yogurt sauce. The look on his face was pure bliss.”

To learn more about Warner, his team, and his work, visit cancer.osu.edu and search “mobile kitchen.”

Story by Anne Vasey.