MaxLove Project Demonstrates the Healing Powers of Food

Find out how one incredible family and a powerhouse team of chefs are changing health education for the Better.

“Feed a cold, starve a fever,” echo moms everywhere. There are plenty of age-old remedies we could reference, and some such as this one will lead back to real science, but many of us brush them off as unproven or untested. This is changing, and fast. You are, in fact, what you eat, good or bad. What has become increasingly undeniable is that food plays a vital role in our health.

Chicken noodle soup or a hot toddy with a good rye from your liquor cabinet may make you lose that cold overnight, but it gets far more complicated when talking about overall health and wellness with what you eat and how to change your lifestyle. Is there a clear and definitive food you should eat if you find out you have cancer? What can we eat to prevent it altogether? Is buying organic the answer? A keto diet? I try not to eat too many late-night peanut butter cups, but we all have our vices when it comes to food. You wouldn’t be drooling over the picture on the cover of this magazine if you didn’t like indulging in the finer things.

Audra Wilford says to settle down. It’s OK to not be perfect. There is no need to freak out and make the problem bigger than it is because the stress you’re causing could be doing more harm than good. Reward yourself, or the ones you love, with big praise for small victories. Audra is the mom of “Super” Max Wilford, and the CEO of MaxLove Project, a local nonprofit supporting children surviving cancer and their families during treatment and after. She knows the power of food as medicine and has started a wellness revolution within a community of parents looking to beat the odds. Her son, Max, was 4 years old when diagnosed with brain cancer, and she and dad, Justin, took charge of becoming partners in his treatment. Combined with standard chemotherapy, they sought other options in their quest to help. For Max, a customized diet has been a mostly successful path, coupled with keeping active, getting good sleep and managing stress. More than seven years later, he has not only survived his diagnosis but has been able to thrive.

The part that many of us don’t know is a frightening statistic — 85 percent of childhood cancer survivors will face a life-threatening health issue by 45 years old, a much younger age than their peers. With food being such a dominant part of the equation, Audra has brought on chefs and culinary partners to help educate the masses. This is something she is passionate about, and her passion draws you in. She went to culinary school and recognizes how daunting it is for families that don’t have the training or are slaves to processed and fast food.

Audra says that the sweet spot falls between culinary literacy and culinary skills. You have to know what to do with the whole foods that are so important to consume. She notes that doctors and culinary students get about the same amount of education when it comes to nutrition — I can concur. “ There is no interest in macronutrients — it just isn’t the focus,” says Audra. There’s nothing sexy about nutrition, and those culinary schools that do have that in their curriculum are not programs that are sought out by wannabe chefs. Somehow, we need to bring these worlds together.

One way to do this is to teach families how to eat better before they leave the hospital. With this captive audience to tend to, MaxLove partnered with Charlie Cart, a mobile teaching kitchen that was being marketed to schools. They are in the process of testing the feasibility in four major hospitals across the U.S., including CHOC Children’s in Orange. The challenges are many, with logistics like fire codes and staff training to figure out, but it will happen. If you’ve met Audra, you know it will. She spoke to me about the clinicians, doctors and nurses that are embracing the project. “When you cook in a hospital room, the room is transformed,” she says. “The herbs and the smells of cooking are so foreign. It’s so inspiring for the medical team, and for creating a culture of health in the hospital.”

When asked about social responsibility, and how much falls on chefs and restaurateurs to implement this into their menus, Audra’s answer is unexpected. “I don’t think that chefs have the responsibility to create food that is best for everybody,” she explains. “It’s more of an outing and a treat. The challenge for public health is in fast food, cheap food and food out of a box.” She insists that she finds wonderful whole foods at restaurants and can learn new ways to use those ingredients. If anything is demanded of the chef, it’s to share knowledge and engage the community in learning to cook at home.

This leads us to The Gold Apron Society, whose recruited chefs put this sharing of knowledge into practice. It all began with the involvement of Sapphire’s Azmin Ghahreman, and has grown from there. The list includes the beloved Zov Karamardian, sustainability-focused Cathy McKnight of Eilo’s, the talented whole animal butchery mind of Michael Puglisi with Electric City Butcher and yours truly. Even more chefs are getting involved, and this list will continue to grow. We’ve all taken part in the Fierce Foods Academy, teaching families how to cook whole foods, Azmin leads the Farm to Fork dinner every year at Tanaka Farms, and Michael has put forth an incredible effort with the Broth Bank Collective. By this time, you’ve probably heard of the health benefits of bone broth and may be shaking your head at it being ridiculous, but it’s truly amazing, and this chef’s participation has made a massive difference in many families’ lives.

According to Michael at Electric City Butcher, it all started with a chance meeting at 4th Street Market in Santa Ana, where he is located. Audra was doing a cooking demo, and his business partner knew they needed an outlet for their bones. From his perspective as a chef, he was making stocks, soups, and demi-glace — not bone broth, and knew nothing of the health benefits. After getting educated, Michael tailored the mixed bone broth to the health needs of those MaxLove was looking to provide for. He uses very little carrot and no tomato paste to reduce sugar, uses more leeks and garlic for their innate benefits, and roasts only the chicken bones to add depth of flavor and rich color, without losing any of the nutrients from the beef bones. The final product, Audra told him, was the best she’d had: “We need this broth now.”

That’s really all it took for Michael to be hooked on being involved. His own sister-in-law is a childhood cancer survivor, and his wife is an RN. He connected to the cause immediately: “It’s my opportunity to give back directly to families and children of survivors, and people that need it in my immediate community. I can control it and make sure we are providing something great every single time. We have our hands on it every time. We won’t outsource it because it means too much to me to trust someone else with it — it has become too important. We are 110 percent involved with MaxLove and support them in any way we can, monetarily or otherwise through the shop. I’ve become really emotionally attached to it. I had no idea it could be what it is, and it works so well in the sustainable model of the shop. We use everything, and it has purpose.”

If anything is demanded of the chef, it’s to share knowledge and engage the community in learning to cook at home.

Audra and her passionate stewardship of the cause will continue to be disruptive to the norms of medicine, and she will not sit idly by as children and their families suffer unnecessarily due to lack of resources and education. MaxLove Project involves parents, doctors and the community working together as a team. Learn more and see how you can get involved.

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