How the Therapeutic Effects of Cooking Help Residents of a Middlefield Farm Community

Sep 16, 2016

Home cooks know how relaxing it can be to putter in the kitchen, but for deeply troubled minds, cooking can be much more than a stress-reliever.

In today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman visits a farm in Amish country where the art of cuisine is a form of therapy.

We’re in Middlefield on this sunny summer morning at Ohio’s only therapeutic farm community for adults with mental illness.

Peaceful surroundings

Hopewell residents raise livestock, grow produce, and learn how to cook in a healthful way while recovering from mental illness
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Hopewell's Program Director Colleen Welder shows us around the farm's 300 serene and sprawling acres.

"The first thing you see are the chickens, and they are free range. On the other end of the farm here, there’s pigs and there are sheep.”

About 50 adults live and work at Hopewell as a community, and get help for serious mental illness.

"Typical diagnoses,” says Welder, “would be schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar depression.”

Residents get better here while keeping busy.

“We have animals. There’s gardens. Kitchen chores to do. And all of that creates a structured day and meaningful work for people that are in recovery.” 

Growing what they’ll learn to cook
Program facilitator Cindy Wagner helps residents grow their own food.

“It’s a lot of hard work, hours out here in the sun, but it’s so rewarding because we start from seed, and then we watch our plants grow, and it’s just like all of us. We start somewhere; we work on what issues we have, and then we grow. I think the residents can really relate to that."

Cindy Wagner grows pumpkins on her own nearby farm, and helps Hopewell residents raise their crops.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Not far from the growing fields and just down the drive from the Main House is a smaller building. A farm family lived here before Hopewell was established more than 20 years ago.

We walk into a large living and dining room with a fully-equipped kitchen where class is about to start. Teacher Anne Skowronski used to work at the farm as a cook.

“Hopewell asked me to do the class. Loved cooking here for 12 years. Then I retired from the kitchen, but a couple years ago Hopewell realized that insurance companies and families would like the residents to learn more skills.”

Popular class
There’s a waiting list for the three-hour class, limited to four students every Wednesday for eight to 10 weeks.  Sonya Hirst signed up right away.

“I am actually a terrible cook I will admit. So doing this class was something that I was really looking forward to. I live alone, and so now from the things that I’ve learned from Anne, I can be able to cook in my apartment.”

Students enjoy the healthy balanced meals they cook at the end of each class.
Credit COLLEEN WELDER / Hopewell

She’s learning recipes as well as techniques.

"Chop, chop chop,” Skowronski coaches. “You can just keep going back and forth over it, OK?”  

Skowronski teaches the proper use of a salad spinner; and how to sharpen knives.

“Not pushing down terribly hard. You’re just kind of letting it rest on it. And do it about six, seven or eight times.”  

A sharp knife is a safe knife, Skowronski instructs, while Sonya slices stalk after stalk for the rhubarb crunch dessert.

“You’re doing a great job,” her teacher assures Sonya. “And you can do four or five of them together once you get the knack of it. OK?”

Cooking as a team
Skowronski makes sure everyone’s busy. Alex Sykes, Kelsey Burnham and Nick Lizza have been working on the main course.

“We’ve got Alex cutting up some peppers, and Kelsey just finished cutting up tomatoes, and this is Nick and he just finished cutting up our green onions.”

Nick has to leave class early to check out a place he might move to when he’s discharged soon. He says he 

Nick Lizza wished he could stay for the end of the class, but had to leave for an appointment. First he finished chopping lots of green onions for the salad.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

learned something about himself while learning how to cook.

“To be able to eat the final product of something that you create is really satisfying. It eases the spirit.”

Today, Skowronski’s class will create a chicken taco salad.

“It’s a simple summer meal, and it uses romaine lettuce. I don’t use iceberg lettuce. The chef that we watch the video on from the Culinary Institute of America says iceberg lettuce is the white flour of vegetables.” 

Skowronski shows students a couple of videos.

“One’s on healthy eating, making healthy foods taste great, and the other one is getting back to the basics of really good cooking and the lost art of cooking.” 

The link between diet and mental wellness
A March 2015 editorial in the medical journal The Lancet: Psychiatry cited growing evidence of the connection between diet and mental health. Skowronski wants her students to have fun, but the serious objective of her cooking instruction is better health. “And cooking at home is the healthiest way.”

Alex Sykes didn't do much cooking before he came to Hopewell, but now he's interested in gourmet cuisine.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

For Alex, though, it’s never been the easiest way. He has trouble at first chopping the peppers.

“You might want to use the bigger knife with that,” Skowronski suggests. “Here, let me rinse that off for you, OK? It’d be easier.”  

Before coming to Hopewell, Alex mostly ate out.

“I’ve experimented with chicken-fried rice. I’ve experimented with spaghetti. I’ve tried macaroni. That’s about it.”  

Thanks to Anne Skowronski, and the videos she shows, Alex plans to try some gourmet recipes. “Like beurre blanc and Spanish sauces, which were the original base roots for world sauces. So, I’ve learned a lot about that, too.” 

Perceiving the benefit
As they work together, slicing and dicing, Alex, Kelsey and Sonya agree that the knowledge they’ve gained will help when they leave Hopewell.

“Just working with vegetables, and adding the nutrition that we need to make the meals better for us,” according to Sonya.

“Definitely,” Kelsey agrees. “We have to cut out processed food.”

“Yeah,” Alex chimes in. “Even if it appears to be safe you always have to look and see what the ingredients are. If it’s more than seven then you could be steaming down a hill.”

Kelsey’s starting to get the hang of it, but still needs her teacher’s help with the red onion. “Actually, this knife would be better. A serrated knife is much better for tomatoes, but not for onions.”  

l. to r. Sonya Hirst, Kelsey Burnham, teacher Anne Skowronski, and Alex Sykes.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Clinical studies of the benefits of culinary therapy are few, but Kelsey Burnham’s a believer.

“Being able to cook for yourself, it’s therapeutic. It takes my mind off things, and you get to eat good food. Eating healthy, it’s a big part in your mental health. “  

Burnham says cooking class got her thinking about a new career.

“I’ve debated it. I’m a veteran. I was in the Marine Corps, and I still have the GI Bill, so one of my things I might do is culinary school.” 

The average length of stay at Hopewell is three to six months. Sonya Hirst is leaving today.

“I’m excited to get back into the world and go forth."

“She will,” says her teacher. “She will be fine.”