When Audra Wilford's 4-year-old son Max was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer in 2011, she did the only thing she could think to do to increase his quality of life — she cooked.
The Tustin mother of two attended culinary school and worked in the restaurant industry before starting her career in higher education, so she knew the importance of a healthy diet. She also knew that showing her son how to prepare therapeutic meals himself would empower him to not only eat better, but more.
Food, then, was a logical addition to his treatment strategy, which included brain surgery, MRIs and intensive chemotherapy.
"Today in our standard American diet and our food system we're facing tons of additives in addition to not knowing how it's grown, so the closer you can get to that food the better," says Wilford. She and her husband, Justin, founded the nonprofit MaxLove to support and share resources with other families they met at Children's Hospital of Orange County's (CHOC) Cancer Institute.
"That's why our culinary medicine program is so important because most people today are limited in culinary literacy," she said. "Learning culinary skills is the key to feeling empowered in the kitchen. If you don't feel empowered you're not going to work with whole foods and you're not going to utilize food as medicine. It's as simple as that."
MaxLove's culinary medicine program, a research-based program known as Fierce Foods Academy, is one of the nonprofit's cornerstone initiatives. For nearly five years it's offered monthly cooking classes for pediatric cancer patients and is hosted by some of Orange County's biggest chefs, who present simple snack recipes, teach basic kitchen techniques and sometimes even stage mock cooking show competitions to engage the kids.
"It's such a powerful thing," Wilford says.
This year, the Fierce Foods Academy is expanding its reach even further, moving the culinary medicine program from incubator and test kitchens across Orange County directly into CHOC. MaxLove recently facilitated the donation of a Charlie Cart, a fully-stocked mobile cooking station that the hospital's clinical nutritionists can use to educate patients, their families and staff from inside the building.
The Charlie Cart was originally designed to be used in classrooms and comes with a tested curriculum that encourages children to learn how to bake, blend, saute and more. But because of the regulations and limitations involved with cooking inside a hospital (not allowed in patient rooms, no communal bowls, etc.), CHOC's Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Department spent months rewriting the curriculum for their specific needs.
"We usually do a lot of classroom style and one-on-one education where we're talking to them about healthy food and healthy food preparation, but people are tactile learners and they often want to see it or eat it," says Caroline Steele, director of the Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Department at CHOC. "It's important that it's hands on for both the parents and the kids."
Steele said the curriculum they created is being shared with children's hospitals around the country.
Today, Max Wilford is 8 years old and still fighting his brain cancer, but he is active and thriving — a fact his mother attributes to a custom ketogenic diet.
Like the support systems and resources championed by MaxLove itself, the culinary medicine program and Charlie Cart donation emerged out of a void in care that Audra Wilford and her husband decided to fill. They never want another parent to go down the Google rabbit hole and emerge with untested and incorrect information about their child's nutritional needs.
"It's not going to be some obscure fruit from the Amazon or a single cure-all diet," Wilford says. "It's identifying your health needs and learning how to meet those needs. It's about learning what food can do for your body."