When life gave Caryn Dugan some lemons, guess what? She made lemonade. In August 2008, Dugan’s father passed away after a long fight with cancer. “Of course that was very impactful on me,” Dugan notes, “and then exactly 10 weeks later, I, too, was diagnosed with cancer. I went through surgery and got rid of it—and thankfully I’m cancer-free now. I call it my brush with cancer because it wasn’t a long, drawn out treatment with chemo. But my entire life, I was always looking into what’s healthy. I would do Weight Watchers, I would do this, I would do that. I was constantly asking, What does the word ‘healthy’ mean?

Dugan says she picked up a copy of The China Study by Dr. T. Collin Campbell, which then prompted her to read all kinds of articles, journals, books and magazines by renowned physicians about how the body is fueled and how the body can build its immune system through the use of whole foods. “So would my father not have died of cancer had he been on a whole foods/vegan diet? Would I have been diagnosed with cancer had I been on a whole foods/plantbased diet?” she poses. “Who knows? You can’t go back, but what I can do now is make better decisions for myself and help others do the same thing. It’s about knowing what you are putting in your body and what you are doing to yourself. I still don’t make all the right decisions—I still like a glass of wine from time to time, and I’ll pick up a bag of chips every once in a while because I’m craving them. And that’s OK. You don’t have to be psycho about it, but you do have to understand what you’re doing to yourself if you indulge too often.”

Her next step was to change to a plantbased diet, but she also knew that she needed to be educated. “I knew it was a good choice, but it was so confusing. When I first started doing this, I knew I could steam broccoli like a champ, but so can anybody and that gets old after about a week. I decided I should become educated, so on National Veggie Day in June 2009, I attended a class that Bridgette Kossor was teaching at Whole Foods. I just really connected with her.” And the feeling was likely mutual, because Kossor called Dugan the following week, asking if she would be her assistant. “I taught with her for two years at the Wellness Community (now the Cancer Support Community). I learned a lot through her. But then with her recent move to Tennessee, she asked if I would be interested in continuing to teach the classes, which was incredibly generous of her.”

Recently, Dugan has spent time reorganizing and creating a focus for STLVegGirl, which is starting up in October. “I’m my own brand, as a lot of people are doing now,” she explains. “My focus is on all things plants: economically, seasonally and local. If your food doesn’t have to travel for three weeks to get to you, then it’s going to retain its nutrients, minerals and vitamins.”

And her tagline: A plant on every plate! “It’s no secret that whole foods, whole grains and whole plants are beneficial to just about every system in your body, so why not add more of this to your plate?”

Duggan has classes scheduled at both local Whole Foods locations for the next three months. “For class ideas, I look to see what’s in season,” she continues. “I look to see what holidays, festivals and times of the year are coming up, so I cook and plan around the calendar. I just think it’s important to teach people to not to be afraid of vegetables. It’s so easy to use the convenience foods, especially the microwaveable varieties, but there’s also a lot to be said about bringing cooking back to the kitchen and having the kiddos help, or your spouse or your friends. Feed your body well, and as I said, A plant on every plate! It doesn’t mean you have to take your chicken or cheese off your plate—just add more vegetables and grains.”

More Food & Dining articles.