A child of the 60s, Toni Scott grew up eating healthy foods. Her family grew fruits and vegetables in their own garden and her Muskegon neighborhood was home to many fruit trees. “My dad had a garden behind the garage. It was full of every vegetable we needed to eat,” Toni recalls. “I would go out and help my mom pick for dinner. She cooked from scratch for my four brothers, two sisters and me.”
As an adult, Toni’s appetite for healthy foods inspired her to become an accomplished cook. About the only thing that makes Toni happier than cooking for her family is cooking for her neighbors, her church and for anyone who might stop by her house at dinner time. “I just love to feed people,” Toni says. “I especially like to grill, all year long. I grill turkey, fruit and vegetables–when I don’t eat vegetables, I feel sluggish.”
In 2004, Toni woke up one morning with pain and numbness in her arm. At first she thought she had been simply sleeping in a bad position. But, as the symptoms persisted, she sought medical advice. Her doctor diagnosed her with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the debilitating disease continued to attack her nervous system, she was forced to quit working. Despite finding herself disabled and on assistance, Toni kept right on eating healthy and feeding people.
To bolster the small amount of food assistance dollars she received, Toni gardened and also learned how to make the rounds at food pantries, a local church and food trucks to supplement her store of nutritious menu ingredients.
In 2013, she participated in a food gardening program with Our Kitchen Table (OKT), a grass-roots, Grand Rapids non-profit that works for food justice and greater access to healthy foods for all. OKT provided Toni with containers, composted soil, organic starter food plants and a garden coach to ensure her success. In addition, Toni attended OKT’s free gardening classes. She was amazed at the amounts of fresh produce she harvested from the OKT container garden in her own back yard.
As Toni’s garden coach and OKT executive director, Lisa Oliver-King, got to know Toni better, she realized what a treasure Toni was. Within a year, Toni was cooking up her own healthy recipes for OKT events and was soon hired as the organization’s first cooking coach.
“Toni Scott has helped OKT create the role and responsibilities of the cooking coach. She has been an essential piece of the food growing experience for OKT participants,” Oliver-King says. “Known as Ms. Toni, she has connected with individual and group participants in a soulful way that lends itself to laughter, exploration and full experience of good, nurturing food. She is our treasure — and our secret weapon for exemplifying what being food secure can be like, despite having limited resources.”
Toni continues to lead OKT’s Cook, Eat & Talk events, some for the general public and others for local agencies and public schools. During the growing season, she creates recipes using produce growing in OKT food growers’ gardens and selling at the OKT-managed Southeast Area Farmers’ Market. Off season, she bases her recipes on foods that OKT makes available through a collective purchase group offering bulk whole foods via EBT card.
As Toni demonstrates each recipe, she engages her audience in friendly conversation; she creates a comfort level that encourages them to share their own family recipes as well as their frustrations with having limited access to healthy foods in their neighborhoods. Thus, the conversation also leads to a discussion of food and environmental justice.
“I have a passion for helping people understand that the media would have us think it costs a lot to eat healthy, as a ploy to get us to eat boxed food. At the Cook Eat & Talk, I can dismiss that myth and people see how quick and easy cooking from scratch can be — plus it tastes good and is self-rewarding,” Toni says. “If you cook from scratch, it stretches your money and your longevity.”
Author of this blog, Stelle Slootmaker, has been a writer and communications professional for more than 24 years. In addition to serving as Our Kitchen Table’s communication manager, she works with a variety of business, healthcare and nonprofit clients.