Teen volunteers help prepare the nonprofit’s plant-based meals
Amor Healing Kitchen founder Maria Kelly at the garden where volunteers grow produce for meals.
“Thank you for getting me excited about food again.” This simple sentiment, written to Amor Healing Kitchen by a woman in the midst of cancer treatment, boils down the mission of the nonprofit. “When people become so sick that they don’t want food anymore, their bodies are starting to shut down. But we need food to heal,” says executive director Maria Kelly, who was with her mother through a three-year battle with colon cancer. “When my mom didn’t feel well, I would bring her meals as a way to comfort her and give us time together.”
In 2018, eight years after her mother’s passing, Kelly founded Amor Healing Kitchen based on the tender idea that good food, lovingly prepared, serves to embrace and revive the sick. “We support clients facing chronic illnesses and health conditions like cancer, HIV, and diabetes as well as cardiac rehab patients and people recovering from surgery,” says the former high school teacher. For 12 weeks, clients receive weekly deliveries of healthy plant-based dishes. And thanks to a model that calls for high schoolers to work with community members behind the scenes, these nutritious meals buoy body and spirit not only for the recipients but also the volunteers who cook and deliver them.
Every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, teams of teens and adult mentors gather in the small farm kitchen at John’s Island’s Sweetgrass Garden. Under the tutelage of culinary director Justin Booher, they chop, stir, sauté, and whir components for Friday deliveries. Each week, roughly 25 Charleston-area clients receive three nutritious ready-to-heat meals, a soup or salad, snack, and dessert, all alongside a fresh bouquet donated by a local florist. The vegan menus include dishes such as eggplant mushroom penne pasta with marinara, tahini banana muffins, and pumpkin seed roasted squash pesto.
(Left) Teen volunteers learn about healthy eating while helping others; (Right) Culinary director Justin Booher (right) and volunteers use seasonal, organic ingredients.
“We believe in a plant-based model,” says Kelly, a vegetarian with personal experience in the healing power of produce. “A diverse diet has a very positive effect on our bodies’ microbiomes.” Relying on donations from Charleston Parks Conservancy, Fields to Families, and Haut Gap Middle School’s learning garden, Amor Healing Kitchen uses in-season ingredients, opting for organic when possible. “Our teen volunteers learn that food doesn’t come out of a plastic package. They work with vegetables pulled straight from the ground and discover how seasonal eating supports local farmers and, in turn, the economy,” says Kelly. Beyond new veggie varieties and culinary techniques, Booher shares with the youth any feedback received from the people for whom they’ve cooked. “The kids see that what they’re doing directly impacts someone’s life. That has value,” emphasizes Kelly.
The executive director hopes that with a chef on board full time, a move the nonprofit made earlier this year, they’ll be able to double their reach with additional cooking and delivery days and perhaps a second kitchen facility. Amor Healing Kitchen also has begun nurturing additional income streams, a practical expansion required when the organization’s event-based model screeched to a halt because of COVID-19. Ninety percent of clients receive the program for free, while the remaining 10 purchase packages or receive gift subscriptions from family, friends, and coworkers. To fund its work, the nonprofit leans on small grants, community donors, and virtual fundraisers. Several clients have expressed an interest in learning to cook plant-based meals for themselves, so Amor has also begun offering two virtual cooking series each month—a free community workshop and a fee-based class taught by a guest chef.
“Life is so isolating right now for many of our immunocompromised clients. They’ve needed us during the pandemic more than ever,” stresses Kelly. And what better way to connect than over a delicious meal? One volunteer has started joining a client for tea on the back porch every Friday during drop-off, bringing not only healing food but also friendship. Fitting that Amor Healing Kitchen dubs these helpers “delivery angels.”