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Know Your Neighbors: Mary Fremgen

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Healthy, whole foods play a crucial role in preventing disease and recovering from illness. Meet a Geneva nutritionist who’s teaching young people the value of eating well, while serving patients and their families.

Mary Fremgen (Blake Nunes photo)

Mary Fremgen (Blake Nunes photo)

Mary Fremgen knows firsthand how food impacts our health.

“My grandmother had diabetes, which was the result of her weight struggles and eating habits,” she says. “When my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, it hit me hard. I had met my share of challenges with him, trying to encourage a change in his diet, and to discourage red meat and processed sausage, which he loved. I was working in oncology nutrition at the time and research suggested a correlation between diet and colon cancer risk.”

Fremgen, a registered dietitian, has spent 25 years helping others to realize the connection between what they eat and how they feel. “My choice of career was due to my strong desire to help people make a positive change in their risk for disease,” she says. “It’s neat to be able to bring that passion into my profession.”

Now, Fremgen is finding new ways to share her message. In 2012, she and Susan Leigh, an organic chef, founded Fox Valley Food for Health, a Geneva-based nonprofit that provides free, weekly meals to people with serious illnesses, such as cancer. These meals are prepared by local high school students, who learn to cook healthy, nutrient-rich meals with guidance from qualified chef mentors.

What inspired you to launch this program?

Susan and I realized that our community needed a program where teenagers could learn about the benefits of good nutrition, and we found that we could help chronically ill people at the same time. This is an opportunity to teach young people good dietary habits that they can maintain for the rest of their lives. Nutrition can also greatly benefit clients and get them back to a healthy position where they can recover, fight for survival, or heal.

How does the program work?

Clients and their family members receive a week’s worth of free, nutrient-rich meals every week for 12 weeks. Meals are mainly plant-based, with fish and chicken, two vegetarian meals, soups and hearty salads. We prep, cook and package meals inside the kitchen at Roquette University, part of the international starch manufacturer’s Innovation Center in Geneva. We cook the food every Tuesday, and during a break in the work, teens learn about nutrition.

After clients have received 12 weeks of meals, they and their caregivers are offered a four-week program in cooking skills and nutrition, for a nominal fee. This class is taught at Country Garden Cuisine Cooking School in St. Charles, which hosts many cooking classes about farm-to-fork eating.

Why is fighting cancer so close to your heart?

I started out in oncology nutrition in 1979 at Lake Forest Hospital, and have come full circle. Seven years ago, my father died from cancer and that was about the same time LivingWell called and asked me to get involved. I felt the need to make people more aware of the impact that good nutrition has in fighting chronic illness, especially cancer. More than 80 percent of cancer patients suffer the effects of malnutrition, which can have a huge impact on their recovery and survival.

What does it take to start a nonprofit?

Starting a nonprofit was a lot of work, but at the same time, it was some of the most rewarding work I have ever done. In the beginning, we were busy recruiting volunteers, securing funding, running fundraisers and raising awareness in the community. After that, we recruited our board of directors, completed our five-year strategic plan, and we are now in the process of hiring our first two part-time employees. Our special events include a gala in the winter, a barbecue in the spring and our first Kitchen Walk this fall. All proceeds have gone directly to the meal program, food and equipment. We are constantly raising awareness at health fairs and connecting with the medical community, from which many of our clients are referred.

What’s your greatest satisfaction?

My greatest satisfaction is seeing the impact we have made in the community, whether it’s teaching cooking skills or bringing people together for a common goal. I hope we can encourage people to get back into the kitchen, eat more meals at the family table and understand the importance of whole foods and better nutrition. As a community dietitian, I have seen the negative results of poor eating habits and insufficient disease prevention. Making a change begins with teaching people at an early age about the importance of diet and physical activity. It seems simple, but behavior change is the most difficult challenge I face.

What are you working on next?

This summer we began teaching organic gardening to teens. More than 20 were involved each week, and we’re now reaping the benefits of growing our own food. We’re spreading the word about the positive benefits of eating kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, beets, carrots, squash, ginger – many of which are new to our students. Nutrition is a relatively new science, but there is more information available to us than ever before. Our hope is to reach and support as many people in our community as possible and let no one go without food for health.

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