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MATTOON — Charleston native Lori (McElwee) Martin has founded a plant-based whole food business that is cooking and selling prepared food at Mark's My Store in Mattoon.

The Tampa, Fla., resident's line of Plant Craver food has grown to include lasagna rolls, lentil loaves, African stew, broccoli and cheese soup, baked oats, oatmeal cream pies, and more since it debuted in September.

Plant Craver's roots go back to Martin's decision nine years ago to become a vegan as a way to improve her health in the face of her family's history of heart disease. She subsequently eliminated meat, dairy and eggs from her diet.

"I decided at that moment nine years ago I was going to take a different path, and that is where my journey began," Martin said.

Her sister, Jana Johnson of Charleston, joined in this journey after suffering a massive heart attack four years ago. Martin said her sister asked her for coaching help on healthy cooking and eating.

Johnson said her cholesterol levels went down and her energy level went up after switching to a diet that is composed mostly of plant-based whole food.

"If I had not changed my ways of eating, I don't know what would have happened to me," Johnson said.

Word of her health coaching spread to acquaintances in Charleston and Mattoon, Martin said. This led to her teaching a series of local classes based on the book, "Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health."

Martin had been working for more than a decade as a corporate chef in the health care industry in Florida. Martin said she offered healthy menu options but felt hypocritical serving food that she would not eat.

"That's when I decided I wanted to change my career path and help people with new journeys they are wanting to embark on," Martin said of becoming a full-time health coach about a year ago.

Martin said while helping her students learn how to improve their diets, she saw a need for convenient "grab and go" healthy food that they could eat when they do not have time to cook a meal.

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One of her students is Gretchen Elliott. She and her husband, Mark, own Mark's My Store and Crave Coffee & Café in Mattoon. Martin said Gretchen Elliott asked how they could get her plant-based whole food into their businesses.

Crave Coffee & Cafe opens in Mattoon

"They opened this door for me to be able to come into their commercial kitchen and be able to prepare these meals for the Coles County community," Martin said. She prepares them with the help of her sisters, Johnson and Debra Hays.

Martin said they stocked Mark's My Store's freezers in September with more than 600 meals that sold out within about four weeks. She said they recently prepared 1,200 meals during the course of four days to restock the freezers.

"I just think it's a big plus for Mattoon and the surrounding area because there is nothing else like that available around here," Mark Elliott said of Plant Craver's prepared vegan food. "I just think it's something unique and people are looking for it."

Stacia Lynch of Charleston helped brainstorm the Plant Craver name, Jeanette Combs-Stagner of Charleston creates the product labels, and several of Martin's students also help with this project.

Martin said her Plant Craver Food has an emphasis on not using oil, a cooking practice that often makes vegan food unhealthy. Martin said she also focuses on using all natural ingredients and sourcing them locally whenever possible.

In the long run, Martin said she wants to continue growing Plant Craver in Coles County and eventually establish a commercial kitchen there.

"My ultimate goal is to see my food in chain grocery stores and to be able to ship everywhere," Martin said.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @TheRobStroud

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Rob Stroud is a reporter for the JG-TC, covering the city of Mattoon, Lake Land College, Cumberland County and areas including Oakland, Casey and Martinsville.

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