Vel Scott: Chef and Health Advocate

Vel Scott is a food and health advocate based in Cleveland. Her organization, Vel Scott’s Healthy You, facilitates workshops and other trainings in the greater Cleveland area, helping people to understand more about their food, where it comes from, and how to live a healthy lifestyle. She also runs Vel’s Purple Oasis, an urban farm in Cleveland that allows locals to become directly involved in food production through volunteering. This past Tuesday, Scott visited Oberlin as a guest chef, cooking in the Lord-Saunders Dining Hall. Her menu, along with much of what she cooks, was inspired by traditional foods from Mississippi, where she was born.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nathan Carpenter: I was hoping you could talk about what you do and how you came to do it.

My name is Vel Scott, and I’m with Vel Scott’s Healthy You, a health and wellness program that helps families and individuals gain the knowledge to live a healthier lifestyle through workshops, meetings, talking, cooking, laughing — just living, everyday living.

NC: What kind of programs do you do to help support that work?

We do mindfulness workshops. We do prep — we prep food, but we also do workshops on prepping the mind, getting people to think a different way, getting people to expand their knowledge on what they really think healthy food is and healthy living is, and to know that everybody can live a healthier lifestyle just by wanting to go that route. Once you decide that you are going to make a change, then it’s easy to find cheap, inexpensive food that comes from Mother Earth.

NC: You mentioned helping people think about what it means to eat healthy and live healthy. I’m wondering if you find that there are some common misconceptions around what those things mean.

I think there are some misconceptions. People think in order to be healthy that you have to be wealthy, that you have to have a lot of money, that you have to live in a certain neighborhood, and that you have to come from a certain background. In my opinion, that’s totally not true. The first thing is that you have to understand that you get one body, one temple, and you should try and fuel that temple with the best and the most original food that you can get. … Food that is mainly plant-based, that comes from the earth, that’s not processed, that’s more in its natural form than anything else.

NC: Is your organization involved in the production of food as well as these different programs that you do?

Yes, we have a 501(c)(3), … and under that umbrella is the Vel Scott’s Healthy You program and also the Purple Oasis Garden, which is in the heart of University Circle [in Cleveland]. There we have a couple of acres of land we’ve cultivated, we’ve planted, and we harvest. We have fruit trees, we grow greens — everything is edible in that garden. So that’s right in the heart of the neighborhood where people can walk and become involved in the planting, growing, and production of their food. In other words, they know where it comes from.

NC: What do you think that adds to someone’s experience of food?

I think it adds the fact that they are a part of it; they’re connected to it. And again, they know where it comes from — that it hasn’t been genetically modified, it has not been sprayed — because they’re out there every day. They start from the planting of seeds or from starter plants. … They water, they weed, and they become connected to it.

Janet Fiskio: Could you talk a little bit about how you chose tonight’s menu and how it reflects your philosophy of healthy food?

I know that I’m known for a lot of plant-based eating, but … I’m not trying to push everyone into being plant-based — I don’t like to categorize. … I say eat good, whole, fresh food and whatever name you want to plant on that, that’s up to you. I’m a Vel-etarian, and a Vel-etarian means that I know my body. I eat the freshest food that I can find, and if by chance I decide that I want to delve into fish or poultry, it has to be organic. It has to be the best brand, the best cut that I can get. But in the meantime, I rely mainly on my garden for my meals — that’s the greens, tomatoes, potatoes, my fruits, my fresh herbs, and things that I can grow in the garden.

So how does that evolve into today’s menu? Well, today’s menu, we have a cabbage dish. Cabbage is universal. If cabbage is prepared with a plant-based butter, then it certainly comes under the category of being vegetarian and vegan. So you have your cabbage, your fresh herbs, your onions, your peppers, and it’s sautéed lightly, or it can be steamed — it’s so versatile. 

And then there’s the oxtail. The oxtail is sort of traditional. I grew up in Mississippi. I grew up in the South. At that time when I was growing up, I remember [oxtail] was like the lesser of the food groups that you would eat, but now they’ve gone mainstream. People have found out about the oxtail, and now they’re braised and they’re served with potatoes and onions and celery and all of the wonderful organic vegetables and herbs that we have. So it’s taken it to a whole ’nother level.

Then there’s the — can’t ever forget this — our southern fried chicken. Growing up, my mother did a lot with baked chickens, because we raised our own chickens, so that was the chicken dish. … With peach cobbler, you can’t forget the peach cobbler. Growing up in the South, we had peach trees, plum trees, apple trees — we had a whole orchard, and we have it here in Vel’s Purple Oasis. So it was a Southern thing to have a peach cobbler with dinner, because you could do so much with the peaches. You could can them, so that way you could have them year-round. So the peach cobbler with the nutmeg, you put a little lemon juice in it maybe, you make a sugary syrup.

Of course this is something that you’re not going to eat every day, all day, on a regular basis, but it’s a special occasion, in that you’re going to have your peach cobbler — sometimes on Sunday, maybe once a month.

And then we have cornbread. It’s unthinkable to have greens without cornbread … and we have sweet potato pie. We all grew sweet potatoes in the South, in Mississippi. In fact, we grow them in the garden here in Cleveland. So everybody had a special recipe for sweet potato pie. … So for dinner here tonight, I selected the sweet potato pie and the delicious peach cobbler.

NC: What lessons or advice do you have in terms of food production and promoting food access?

I think one way is more people going back to basics, where if you don’t have a large area, you have small backyards where you can grow your own food. If you don’t want to do that — a lot of people just don’t want to go through the trouble of having to dig in the dirt and water and weed — there’s so many around the country, and Cleveland I think is second among the cities that are known for farmers markets and for growing their own food. You can always go to your local farmers market and buy food — you don’t have to really grow it unless you want to. And then we have a lot of supermarkets in Cleveland. Now we have the Whole Foods, but we also have Trader Joe’s, we have the Aldis, we have the Save-a-Lot. We have the East Side Market, which is opening on 105th and St. Clair in Cleveland — in the heart of the neighborhoods.

So the food there will come from vendors in the community and maybe 20 or 30 miles around Cleveland. Now you have a reason to be able to walk again in your neighborhood and buy fresh, affordable food. Cabbage, greens, green beans, beans — all the things that lead to a healthier lifestyle will be at your doorstep now. 

JF: You were talking about health, wellness, and mindfulness, and I’ve heard you talk about how eating right is the best medicine and how being healthy and healing is about eating well. I’m wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.

Well, I still believe that food is your medicine. I go back to when my husband had hypertension and congestive heart failure. Just changing the way he ate, changing his habit, changing him from eating more processed food. [Instead], every dinner we had a green salad with a light dressing on it. And then we had greens that were cooked in vegetable stock and wonderful seasonings. We had cabbage, we had potatoes. We had rice, and we had beans, pinto beans, black beans — plant-based food.

So that was all, to me, the medicine that we needed. You know, you can get as much protein from your greens and your beans — and in some instances more — than you can from meat. Not saying that you shouldn’t eat meat, but when we changed our diet to mainly plant-based, we were able to help him reverse his congestive heart failure. So I know that it works as medicine. It is our medicine.

NC: Are there opportunities for interested Oberlin students to support your work?

Absolutely. At the Oasis … we are always in need of students to come and help us weed, water, plant. We also could always use help [from] grant writers, students who know how to write grants or know how to seek out grants to give us more resources so that we can, in turn, during the summer have micro gardening workshops for the students and people in the community. We can teach them how to start their own business, how to set up produce stands, how to sell, how to buy, how to grow, and how to price. It gives them the extra income, and it also makes them a part of the community, and it helps them to grow in so many ways. Some of the students that live in our community near the garden, I’d like to see them travel more. Sometimes you come out of your own backyard and you go to see how other people in other parts of the country live … just to see that there are more places than the small area that you live in on your street or in your neighborhood.