The phrase “eat your vegetables” can refer to any responsible choice you make, whether in work, school, or life. Taken literally, it’s good advice when it comes to your diet.

Healthy eating can mean different things to different people, but almost everyone is making a conscious effort to improve their health by paying attention to what they put in their mouths. And vegetables are among the healthiest items anyone can choose.

Ked Stanfield, executive director of Louisville Grows, organizes programs and activities to encourage a healthy diet at the organization’s headquarters in Portland.

“Something that’s missing from a lot of American diets are vegetables,” he said.  “Vegetables have a lot of nutrients and they don’t have a lot of calories. Those micro- and macro-nutrients that are found in vegetables are things that we lack in our diet.”

Louisville Grows exists, in part, to help people improve their diets by encouraging them to learn to grow and cook vegetables – and that starts by teaching them different ways they can find them. The group operates a dozen community gardens, four public orchards, and a farm, in addition to offering cooking classes and other educational events.

“This is a very affordable way for people who don’t have access to fresh produce to get fresh produce,” Stanfield said. “We feel that buying something from a store is one thing, but when you actually grow the food you have a much different relationship with it. People are more likely to eat fresh vegetables if they grow them.”

Stanfield said it’s important for people to have access to vegetables, especially in “food deserts.” However, changing to a healthy diet comes with other potential issues such as existing bad habits, easy access to unhealthy foods, and a reluctance to spend time in the kitchen cooking.

That’s where education comes into play.

“Access to fresh vegetables is a hurdle, but people who have historically not had access to fresh vegetables, they didn’t grow up with them, they don’t know how to cook them,” he said. “The programs we have here focus on teaching people how to cook, and how to cook with fresh vegetables. That’s an important hurdle for people to cross, to learn to not be afraid, to buy fresh vegetables and cook with them. You can’t just chew on a carrot. It has to be sliced, cut up, put into something. That’s a skill a lot of people don’t have.” 

Stanfield touts the benefits of what amounts to a lifestyle change. When someone gives up a diet filled by meat and fried foods for one with fruits and vegetables, rewards are not only physical.

“Changing your diet is not easy,” he said. “It’s easy to stay where you are. It’s easy to eat these unhealthy foods. They taste great, but the biggest thing I find by eating healthy is that I have a much better feeling about myself. That’s something a lot of people notice right away.”

It’s hard to put a price on feeling better, and once healthy eating becomes habit, physical changes follow. Putting the right fuel in your body makes it easier to lose weight, easier to exercise.

Classes on cooking at Healthy House (the Louisville Grows headquarters building) usually last about six weeks, and are supported by the American Heart Association and Norton Children’s Hospital.

“The mental hurdle of learning to cook is probably the biggest thing to overcome for people,” said Stanfield. “People say ‘I can’t cook’ or ‘I don’t know how to cook.’ It’s breaking that barrier down and letting people know that they can learn how to cook.”

“When you get people in the door that want to make a change, it’s very empowering. It’s empowering for people to take control of their own health and decide what is in their food. When you cook at home, you get to decide how much salt, how much pepper, how much fat, oil, etc. Compared to buying food from a restaurant where it’s packaged, comes as it is, you don’t get to make those decisions.”