Seattle native Anayo Nworjih wants to highlight the important but sometimes overlooked connection between mental health and nutrition.
Nworjih runs Cook Casa, an on-demand food service business he started in San Diego in April 2020 that provides in-home meals or mobile dining experiences – complete with a personal chef. The business “connects people who like to cook with people who like to eat” and champions a world that considers the body “a temple, not a tomb.”
The Cook Casa endeavor is helping support his nonprofit Watering Hope, which he hopes will help solve the serious mental and physical health problems related to what he calls the “toxic, unhealthy, horrible food that we’re eating.”
Nworjih said Watering Hope, founded in January of this year, “will be the vehicle that gets healthy food to food deserts and underserved communities” as it seeks to educate people about healthy eating, helping others with access to nutrient-dense foods that heal versus foods that hurt the body, and “restoring the foundation of what energizes and motivates us.”
“I believe food is connected to our mental health, as it is also connected to our physical health,” he said. “I feel we’ve been lied to by lot of the organizations that are in control of food structure, telling us what is good and what is not. And the pharma industry, I don’t trust them. I believe our system is about sick care not health care, that giving someone pills and prescriptions is a Band-Aid and not a solution.”
Happily married for 10 years, Nworjih said that several years ago, he lost his wife Chloe to mental illness, related at least in part to improper nutrition.
“One day she told me she wasn’t in love anymore and she didn’t want to be married, so over a period of a couple of months of trying to figure it out and keep things together, we separated,” he said.
Nworjih said during their separation, his wife became homeless. He said he searched for her on the streets of Southern California every day, meeting dozens of other homeless individuals along the way, and that it took him nearly six months to locate his wife – wrapped in a blanket, emaciated and with exposed, dirty feet – near the San Diego airport.
Their reunion “was not storybook Disney where you race into each other’s arms,” he said.
“That was the beginning of a new life for me, where I knew things would never be the same,” Nworjih said. “Through that process, for the first time I experienced depression, low and dark. But I realized that there’s always hope, light, faith, God and friends, and through that I was able to be given the strength to make it.”
Nworjih said the sadness and disappointment from what he experienced led him in the direction of a career working with fresh food. It also led Nworjih into actively educating people on the role good nutrition plays in sound minds and sound bodies. “I wanted not just to help Chloe but also the hundreds of people I met through that journey,” he said, adding that what happened with his wife “inspired me to create ways to help others and give back.”
“I believe food is medicine and connected to mental and physical health,” Nworjih said. “Poor nutrition is a leading cause of illness in the United States, associated with more than half a million deaths per year. It is linked with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, mental sickness and heart disease, as well as broader impacts including higher health care costs and decreased productivity.”
Nworjih is still gathering a team of people who want to help create permanent change in the way people, especially those in underserved communities, approach food and care for themselves. He said his board includes doctors, a nutritionist and an attorney. It also includes Katy Rose, a functional medicine health coach and educator.
Rose said believe that what Nworjih is doing is not being done anywhere else.
“We talk about food scarcity, we talk about supplementing and supporting the community, and we talk about food deserts,” Rose said. “But what is not talked about from a functional psychology standpoint is that food is medicine for brain. Through lifestyle and food choices we can bring brain function and mental health into wellness.”
Nworjih said Watering Hope allows him to stay true to his belief that “love is the most powerful source” and that he has made a conscious choice to be a positive force and move through life with optimism. He said that while life is challenging and that we all face obstacles, “it’s up to decide whether to use them as a crutch or use it all to inspire, to help others.”