By Kamille D. Whittaker
If Eugene Cooke and wife JoVonna Cooke’s big ideas could be distilled into a single mantra, it would be: “Keep your garden close” and you will stay healthy — physically and fiscally. Another distillation might be complementarity: The two have made wellness through sustainable food systems a perpetual life cycle — both heading plant-based operations that feed into one another other.
Through MaituFoods, JoVonna is working to develop culturally appropriate and accessible educational materials that highlight the benefits of healthy nutrition through a vegan diet. Since 2008, MaituFoods has served more than 2,000 vegan school lunches to children through a subsidized vegan lunch program, and more than 1,500 vegan meals to families and private chef clients.
The MaituFoods’ Plant Based Pregnancy Program works similarly, providing women with the knowledge and guidance to achieve a healthy pregnancy and optimal postpartum recovery. The overall mission of MaituFoods is to honor the art of food rituals, and to serve humanity in a way that promotes the least harm and the most good for people, animals, and the environment.
With her husband Eugene, food justice activist and urban farmer, JoVonna co-founded Grow Where You Are, a grower-led collective committed to increasing local food sovereignty by assisting individuals and communities in creating sustainable, plant-based local food systems. Grow Where You Are has transformed numerous urban spaces in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Atlanta by establishing community food gardens and vegetable farms using exclusively veganic growing methods.
“We plant food in the very areas we live, amongst the people who need it the most. We created spaces that people can see in their everyday lives,” says Eugene who attributes the impetus for rolling up his sleeves and backing into the revolutionary, African and Indigenous descended and spiritual groundings of mindful agroecological living to family and community.
“I wanted to be able to feed my family. That meant planting fruit trees, and seasonal vegetables, getting rid of the yard and using irrigation systems to grow food.” Eugene partnered early with Rashid Nuri, who had just finished his work with the USDA and travels to Ghana. He invited Eugene to come to Atlanta to help start small, mini urban farms. The two co-founded Truly Living Well Natural Urban Farms in 2007, as a for-profit business, which proved to be very difficult, even though they were ahead of the curve.
“We were trying to sell to the restaurants, and it was working somewhat, then we decided to transform Truly Living Well into a non-profit organization based on educating people about the need for local food abundant systems. From there, we were able to receive grants and foundation support; we opened up Wheat Street Gardens — a four-acre mini farm in downtown Atlanta, right across from the historic MLK Memorial.”
Once Truly Living Well was on solid footing, he transitioned into founding The Good Shepard AgroEcology Center and subsequently, the Grow Where You Are organization. Over the last 10 years, Eugene has assisted in the creation of 18 urban farms, 14 school gardens and more than 40 home food gardens; and has planted 400-plus fruit trees in cities throughout the United States as well as in Jamaica, Haiti and Kenya, where he trained local residents in veganic growing methods and ecological restoration.
The Cookes are committed to demonstrating that food can be grown abundantly without disrupting or depleting ecosystems.
“It’s important for us to know that we can take our own health into our own hands. My folks taught me how to plant food and keep a small garden in the suburbs, because they come from a tradition of farmers throughout the Midwest and the south. The point is the land.” AT