There is a reason why mom’s homemade chicken soup tastes even better when you’re muddling through a cold. Wellness through whole, balanced nutrition has become a cornerstone to successful recovery programs for every diagnosis under the sun. With anti-inflammatory properties, the ability to boost the immune system, and necessary vitamins and minerals, eating right, especially during cancer treatment, shows how important diet for cancer patients can be.
As I met with Katharine Ray in Nashville, Tennessee, I wanted to learn more about the transformations made possible when alleviating worries over meals during cancer treatment. Herself a two-time cancer survivor during adolescence, Katharine is now the Executive Director of the Heimerdinger Foundation, a community-based non-profit promoting healing through the power of nutrition.
“When I started non-profit work in 2001, I was just beginning to see how the cancer landscape was changing. At that time, for me, it was about long-term survivorship and how that could impact my current health.” Katharine’s career has been a testament to patient advocacy through lived experience, both as a cancer survivor and as a beneficiary of the life-changing impact of healthy eating.
The signature project of the Heimerdinger Foundation is Meals 4 Health and Healing, a unique approach to delivering nutritious, homemade meals to patients and their families which Katharine says, “Is about being open to the concept that we are what we eat and we are holistic beings. We are educating people about our foods and the cancer fighting properties of those foods”. Since the program’s launch in 2013, the Foundation is now able to provide healthy meals free of charge to over 60 people weekly.
Katharine, and the organization’s volunteer kitchen support and Delivery Angels have built off of the model of the national nutrition assistance program, Ceres, in California. Furthermore, they abide by the nutritional recommendations of the American Institute of Cancer, creating each plate with organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy-free ingredients. “The concept of the program is that whole food is medicine”.
It cannot be understated that these meals provide more than just calories. Joining the Meals 4 Health and Healing Program is like joining a support system with volunteers cheering individuals on throughout treatment. Though determinations need to be made about who will participate in the program, and in that regard, according to Katharine, “Nurse navigators and nurses are key to identifying patients who really want to embrace healthier eating to heal through their treatment,” participation itself comes down to the relationships being built with the volunteers. These bonds go beyond nutrition and encourage improvements in the psychological health of recipients. Such benefits are not just for the patients – volunteers also look forward to meeting with their clients and spending time learning new recipes in the kitchen. Their teen program fosters an environment where teens learn about choosing “whole foods” for life, cooking skills, and giving back to the community.
The intent of the program is not only to serve the patient during their treatment, but to give them the tools to prepare similar meals on their own at the conclusion of the program. To this end, informational packets about the types of foods used are included with each delivery. “We serve up to 24 weeks total,” says Katharine about the immersive nature of the program, “and we like to do that consecutively so that everyone is learning nutritional information about the components we use. We want them to incorporate those kinds of foods into their lives to build upon what we have given”. For those that may have never tasted quinoa or chickpeas before, experiencing new tastes can become leverage for beginning smarter eating habits, ultimately rethinking the role of diet in cancer recovery and forming an overall healthier lifestyle.
When I asked Katharine how she became involved with the Heimerdinger Foundation and exactly why she believes so strongly in its mission, she told me that in her own life, she has also experienced the healing power of food. After completing the Whole 30, Katharine learned to wean herself off sugar. She has been a cancer survivor for many years now. Katharine is more than just health-conscious, she knows that we truly are what we eat.