Susan Porter Susan Porter
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Susan Porter lays out her ingredients — some onions, a couple squash, cloves of garlic, a dozen eggs, ground turkey, canned crushed tomato sauce — along with various kitchen utensils on the folding table in front of her. Beside her, there are nine other chefs ranging in age from late 50s to early 70s in bright red aprons. “Today,” Porter says, “we’re going to be making turkey meatballs with squash noodles and a tomato-based sauce.” 

With a slight Southern twang and the hint of a smile that belies a no-nonsense attitude, she immediately begins delegating tasks to the staff before her. The list comes out quickly and clearly. 

“Terri,” says Porter, pointing to the woman with the floral-patterned head wrap to her right, “you can peel the garlic. Larry, let’s get that water up to a boil. Catherine, we’re going to want you to start cutting the onions.”

Without hesitation, the team springs into motion. The bustle lasts for less than a minute before the questions start coming back at Porter in rapid-fire. 

“This is how you use the garlic tool thing, right?” asks Catherine, seated at the folding table. “Is this enough water in the pot?” asks Andra, one of only two males in the group who would tower over the other women if he didn’t carry himself with a slight stoop.

“Susan,” says Larry, perched on his walker. “We need you at the stove.”

Porter never falters. She whirls effortlessly around a 300-square-foot linoleum-tiled floor, between the two stoves and the industrial sink, then back to the folding table, answering questions along the way, lending a hand and providing words of affirmation.   

The 62-year-old is used to managing a kitchen. She’s the former proprietor of Town Fryer, a Cleveland Southern comfort food eatery which closed in the Euclid Corridor in 2010. But this is not the commercial kitchen she’s used to, and more to the point, these are not her typical chefs. They’re residents of the Cedar Extension High Rise, on East 30th Street, one of the first public housing high rises for senior citizens in the nation.

Under Porter’s leadership, the Cedar Extension group calls themselves the “Pioneers for Healthy Eating.” Though some rest on walkers in between tasks, their lively banter never ceases. They rib each other as only longtime neighbors can do, even as they never lose focus on their individual tasks in the turkey meatball assembly line. And they never stop expressing their appreciation for Porter. With every piece of culinary help, they are quick to respond, “Thank you, Susan.”

Twice a month for the past year and a half, Porter has gathered them in this kitchen on the first floor of Cedar Extension, the home base of her passion project. In collaboration with the nonprofit DigitalC and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, Porter has created Recipe Remix, a program through which she hopes to impact the lives of elderly residents of redlined communities. 

By reworking familiar comfort foods into healthier alternatives, posting those recipes on a website for future use and livestreaming their cooking routines, she hopes to strengthen their connections to one other — in this building and in the community at large.

With 80% of people age 65 and older in the U.S. struggling with at least one chronic disease and 42% of adults 65 and older in Cleveland reporting a lack of access to the internet at home, Porter operates Recipe Remix at the nexus of health and connectivity, the critical importance of which she has seen firsthand.

“Every session highlights a different barrier that needs to be addressed,” says Porter. “Affordability of healthy ingredients, transportation out of food deserts, digital literacy — I want to help find solutions for it all.”

For today, the solution is found in the turkey meatballs, a healthier dish that comes together in just under 30 minutes. The group assembles their own plates — first the squash noodles, then the meatballs, then the sauce and a dash of low-fat Parmesan cheese — and then sit down together at the folding table. The Pioneers bow their heads and Larry leads them in a short prayer of thanks. After a chorus of “Amen,” they dig in together. 

“This is the easiest part of the recipe,” smiles Miss Queenie. “Now, we eat.”


In 2017, Porter wandered into uncharted territory.

She first set foot inside the Cedar Extension High Rise as part of the annual Meeting of the Minds Summit, a national urban sustainability and connected technology conference. It was there she learned that Cleveland has a huge ongoing connectivity issue: 30% of Cleveland households had no broadband internet access of any kind, making it the fourth most unconnected city in the United States.

“Without connectivity, you can’t apply for a job or do your homework or connect with a loved one,” says Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC, a nonprofit working to make Greater Cleveland’s digital future more equitable. “You’re not able to fully participate in society, and it’s an inexcusable situation in Cleveland.”

A closer look at the map shows that areas where more than 50% of households have no internet access are concentrated in neighborhoods such as Hough, Kinsman and parts of East Cleveland. These are all spots which were historically redlined — refused financial services and connectivity as part of the institutionalized racism of the 1960s that was designed to physically segregate communities.

“There’s a very direct connection between where poor people live and where people don’t have the internet,” says Bill Callahan, a Cleveland-based research and policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “Everyone can have a fiber connection, but you won’t have access if you don’t have $70 a month to spend on a provider.”

For Porter, learning about these connectivity issues was eye-opening.

She had her degree in industrial and labor relations and had built a career doing custom software development for companies within various industries, such as university physical plants and manufacturing. 

“My career was all about connectivity, helping various companies reach their consumers in user-friendly ways,” says Porter.

A decade of prior experience as a restaurant owner further cemented her ability to connect through food and community.

“Food was what always brought my family together and I wanted to provide that same food for others,” says Porter, who grew up in the South and was now a single parent to two daughters.

At the time of the summit, Porter had been working as a consultant for Peaceful Fruits, an Akron-based company that makes all-natural fruit strips to benefit kids who lack access to healthy, alternative snacks.

“That experience opened my eyes to start thinking about people who want good food for their kids, but they can’t afford a dollar and change for a small fruit snack,” says Porter.

Each of these opportunities cultivated Porter’s passion to help others connect with one another and thrive. The Meeting of the Minds Summit just opened the floodgate to yet another opportunity.

“Even though I was learning about all of this current inequality, I was also seeing solutions,” says Porter. 

She was intrigued to learn that Cedar Extension had just gotten affordable internet access. In 2016, DigitalC came in to connect each individual resident by running the fiber connection from the adjacent rooftop of St. Vincent Charity Medical Center through the copper wires in the roof. By the time Porter visited, all 155 residents were online.

“I left there that day thinking this was an incredible thing, but that there were still all of these barriers like computer literacy,” says Porter. “What I wanted to know was how seniors who hadn’t been exposed to the internet were using their connectivity.”

Porter approached Jeff Patterson, the CEO of CMHA, to see if she could set up a focus group of seniors at Cedar Extension to learn more about them and their internet use. More than 20 people showed up to the first meeting. They told Porter that they were really only using the internet for Facebook and to play solitaire. But what began as a conversation about internet access quickly became a sharing of health-related problems — diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity — affecting not just their lives, but the lives of their children and grandchildren. 

There was Larry Carter, the former line cook at Lancer Steakhouse who showed off the prosthetic leg he received after losing his foot from diabetes complications.

There was Miss Terri, a stronger voice in the group. She was a Vietnam War veteran who had lived in Cedar Extension for about 10 years and suffered from high blood pressure and gastroparesis, a disease of the stomach eased by healthier eating. 

And there was Miss Queenie, who moved to Cleveland from Alabama as a 21-year-old in 1964. She wanted to eat better, but was quick to highlight the high price of healthier foods and how difficult it was to get to healthier offerings in the food desert surrounding Cedar Extension.

“People shouldn’t have to struggle with being healthy because of where they live,” says Porter. “I felt so much compassion for these people.”

So, Porter got to work. She polled the group for some of their favorite foods and began researching healthier alternatives. But the process proved difficult when she realized there was a plethora of pages, backstories and blogs to scour through to find reliable resources that were accessible. She also learned literacy levels would be a potential obstacle.

“I had just read that two out of three Clevelanders were functionally illiterate, so there was yet another barrier,” says Porter. “I knew at that point that we needed an idea that could access recipes online, make them healthy and make them readable.”

Back in the ground-floor kitchen, Miss Terri, Miss Catherine and Miss Queenie are put in charge of making the squash noodles to accompany the turkey meatballs. They gather around the manual spiralizer to create them, a far healthier option than dough noodles. 

Recipe Remix was specifically created to ignite pride in attendees, who gather on the second and fourth Monday afternoons of each month to prepare a new recipe created by Porter. The timing of the sessions is also intentional: research has shown that traditional senior programming is reserved during morning hours, with afternoons becoming a period of peak loneliness for this population. From her focus groups, Porter has compiled a list of more than 35 of their favorite recipes, creating healthier twists in the process.

“We know that we need to eat better, but it can be hard to find the ingredients,” says Miss Terri. “Susan has shown us ingredients that we never thought of using in dishes that we already love.” 

Like squash noodles. Although Porter has gently told them twice that they can use the KitchenAid electric spiralizer which will make things easier, the three women are determined to use the manual one first. 

Miss Terri and Miss Queenie flank Miss Catherine, who gently tries to put the squash onto the forked end of the spiralizer. The squash resists her efforts. 

“Stick it on there,” urges Miss Terri.

“It ain’t gonna cry, Miss Catherine,” advises Miss Queenie.

Miss Catherine finally jams the squash on the spiralizer more forcefully. It stays attached to the machine. She immediately breaks out into a large grin and starts cranking the silver-plated handle. Within minutes, a large pile of spiral noodles sits before her where earlier there were five pieces of squash.

“That worked well,” Miss Catherine says simply but proudly.

The healthy switches are simple, but impactful. Instead of making gumbo with andouille sausage, for example, they use turkey sausage and pair it with pearly barley instead of white rice. They use pumpkin puree, whole wheat flour and low-fat cream cheese to churn out pumpkin cheesecake bars. A favorite of Miss Terri’s is tomato basil soup, homemade with fresh tomatoes and garlic rather than a canned, processed version. But the clear favorite among them is the mac ’n’ cheese, of which they made all kinds using chickpea pasta and yellow squash.

“Susan is brimming with knowledge, and we want to sop up as much as we can,” says Miss Terri. “She doesn’t tell us what to do, but actually shows us.”

During each session, Porter explains the benefits behind each ingredient, telling the Pioneers where they can purchase it and outlining the cost. She then takes pictures of the ingredients to be posted with the recipes on her website,, so that there is a visual representation alongside the words for seniors who struggle with literacy. Then she doles out the tasks, often with a few Pioneers doing the actual cooking as the others observe. 

As the food comes together, each session is livestreamed through the Greater Cleveland Neighborhood Centers Association’s iConnect program for senior citizens living in other areas. Those few who tune in are able to ask questions via a chat window throughout the session, from oven temperatures to chopping techniques to how it all tastes when the meal is done. Porter is then able to answer those queries in real time.

Although Porter says those who’ve tuned in to the livestream are few, she envisions a program like this could make an impact in senior-living and independent-living facilities across the country.

“Maybe seniors can’t type because of their arthritis,” says Porter when considering Recipe Remix’s low online engagement. “Maybe we create a fancy YouTube channel where people could use their verbal commands. We ultimately want people to feel engaged, especially those who feel marginalized.”

The result is an experience that centers connectivity between senior citizens who are often unseen, overlooked or spread too far apart to connect by traditional means. 

Porter explains that, while she’s not trying to take away comfort foods, she’s trying to inspire senior citizens to “remix” the way they think about their food and each other.

It seems her dreams are materializing when Miss Terri suddenly rises towards the end of the noodle-making process, announces, “I have to show you all something!” and hurries back to her apartment. A few minutes later, she returns brandishing a small cardboard box with a mini spiralizer. 

“I saw this at Asia Plaza on 30th and Payne and bought it for $1.89,” beams Miss Terri. “I never would have thought to buy it before spending this time with Susan.”

In late December, the Pioneers gather together in the Cedar Extension kitchen. The bustle is just the same as any other session. A few of them are at the stove, boiling water for a stovetop mac ’n’ cheese designed for the tens of thousands of Clevelanders who might only be cooking with a hot plate. Other Pioneers are at the folding table, separating dates to be wrapped with bacon, with the remainder of the group at the industrial sink scrubbing utensils that had already been used. But this is a special occasion and unlike the typical Recipe Remix session.

Every year, Porter caters a holiday party for a friend in Lakewood, but this year, Porter asked if she could hire the Pioneers to do some of the cooking instead. Now, they’re hard at work. They’ll each be given $15 an hour for their labor, the first time they would be paid for their work in this kitchen.

“It means a lot to put a value on what we are doing here,” says Miss Terri. 

This social enterprise is just one of Porter’s many plans for the future of Recipe Remix. As she continues building her website, she hopes to use the recipes they’re creating to sell prepackaged meals to senior citizens throughout Cleveland. She’s also considering buying some of the pricier ingredients in bulk and making them more available to those who need them.

“Flour is really expensive,” says Porter. “How can we break down a $10 bag for people who only need a quarter of a cup?” 

She also wants to investigate what it would take to have these recipes searchable through a virtual assistant such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon Alexa for the many Clevelanders who experience challenges with literacy, but who might be hesitant to admit this struggle. 

She is even working with a professor of hospitality management at Cornell University, who is incorporating Recipe Remix into a course to research what other municipalities are doing to address the barriers of literacy, nutrition and internet connectivity in the hopes that there are more ideas that can be used here in Cleveland. 

“There are so many obstacles to healthy eating, even though healthy eating is the basis of how well you can work, learn or even just live,” says Porter. “The key is to identify a barrier and find a workaround.” 

Last May, DigitalC hired Porter as their director of strategic adoption, of which Recipe Remix is one of her chief programs. At CMHA’s annual employee gala in February, Porter was honored with the 2020 Mae E. Stewart Award of Accountability in recognition of her work in supporting residents to lead healthier lives by making simple substitutions in their eating habits. 

Porter is quick to give credit to the many who have been a part of her journey, especially the Pioneers, who are taking this program full steam ahead. She even has a vision of creating a low-profit, limited liability company in which they would be shareholders.

“This is about the Pioneers and who they represent,” says Porter. “We’ve created a nucleus of Recipe Remix that we can replicate anywhere and then scale up.”

Until then, there are many more recipes to make, and the Pioneers are ready to get cooking. As they finalize preparations for their first catered party, they realize they made more of the bacon-wrapped dates than needed. A small tray of leftovers sits at the table and everyone comes over to grab one. 

Miss Terri holds one in her hand and smiles. 

“Susan may have showed us how to make it, but we already knew how to eat it,” she says before taking a bite.

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