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In 2016, Lisa McNaney’s family friend was diagnosed with brain cancer.
This was not the first time McNaney had been confronted with the deadly disease. Both McNaney and her 18-year-old daughter are survivors of breast cancer, and her mother succumbed to cancer in 2015. A personal chef in Livermore, McNaney decided to reach out to her friend in need.
“I just started cooking for his family the way I was cooking through my personal chef business, but with a lot more consciousness around cancer-fighting foods, cruciferous vegetables, bone broth and very low dairy, anti-inflammatory types of menus,” she said.
McNaney soon realized that there were many people who could benefit from her cancer-conscious meal service. She called it Culinary Angels.
“We gathered a few people together who loved to cook and I said, ‘We’re like culinary angels for these people!’” McNaney recalled. Since it launched four years ago, Culinary Angels’ 200 volunteers have served over 5,000 meals throughout Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore. Their mission is simple — provide nutrition education and nutrition-rich meals to people going through a serious health challenge.
In addition to protein and vegetarian entree options, recipients are delivered soup, bone broth and “a little sweet treat” every two weeks. Each meal is made up of ingredients that are organic and locally sourced.
“It’s all seasonal, and it’s based on what’s in the gardens,” McNaney said. “We have two garden partners in Livermore (Fertile Groundworks and Sunflower Hill), and they satisfy about 80 to 90 percent of our produce needs.” Ninety-five percent of meal recipients are cancer patients and their caregivers.
John Carter, a Culinary Angels volunteer and prostate cancer survivor, admires McNaney’s commitment to help others.
“Culinary Angels wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Lisa. She’s dynamic, committed and she knows what these people are experiencing,” he said.
Carter urges men to pursue the PSA blood test, which saved his life. “I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years and I exercise every day. I still got cancer. Cancer doesn’t say, ‘Well you’ve been good, so I’m not going to attack your body.’ It happens to anybody.”
Robin Keyworth, a caregiver and recipient of Culinary Angels, was shocked when her otherwise healthy husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. Keyworth was understandably overwhelmed. Her husband was undergoing chemotherapy in the midst of the pandemic, and she needed support.
As a former oncologist with an interest in nutrition and alternative medicine, Keyworth was less than satisfied with her food delivery service options.
“There are a lot of good food delivery services, but they’re high sodium or high sugar content,” she said. “They’re not locally sourced or without additives.”
Keyworth answered a request for brown bag donations on NextDoor, only to find that her donations were received by Culinary Angels.
“On our first delivery, it was the first meal that my husband had eaten in months. He ate the whole thing,” she said. “That was significant because when you’re undergoing chemotherapy, tastes are strange and smells are awful. You’re sensitive to everything. For a chemo patient to say ‘I’m enjoying this food’ is a huge statement.”
Keyworth also enjoyed the meal service. “I had been having digestive issues due to stress, and this is the only food that I’ve been able to eat regularly that doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I couldn’t be more thankful. It’s almost as if you can feel the love and healing coming out of the bag.”
First Presbyterian Church Livermore, which provides the kitchen for Culinary Angels, closed shortly after the pandemic began. In the interim, Culinary Angels provided meal kits.
“We came up with the idea that we would provide the same beautiful, raw, fresh ingredients in the recipient’s bag, along with a recipe. It was really well received,” McNaney said. They were permitted to return to the kitchen in mid-May.
In addition to a consistent supply of meal kits, McNaney hopes to offer a Culinary Angels cookbook in the future.
“This has to be a gorgeous coffee table book with glossy pictures, because the food is just that: fresh, vibrant, and colorful,” she said. “It speaks for itself.” In the meantime, a number of recipes are available on the Culinary Angels website.
McNaney also hopes to expand the organization, aiming to offer more nutritious food, more often.
In order to do this, Culinary Angels will need greater funding.
“We love volunteers, but it’s not our biggest need right now. Our biggest need is funding and donations,” said McNaney.
On Dec. 1, Culinary Angels will celebrate Giving Tuesday, an online fundraiser; and thanks to a generous anonymous donor, all donations will be matched up to $25,000.
“The mantra that I’ve always had is that I want to feed more people more often,” said McNaney. “We really just want to be a greater service to our neighbors.”