Getting teenagers who are transitioning out of the foster care system into the kitchen to cook with area chefs made sense to Shaleiah Fox and McCall Johnson, the cofounders of Fresh Chefs Society, a year-and-a-half-old organization dedicated to empowering youth through the culinary arts. Vocational training in the area of food preparation would provide these young people with valuable career skills, and many of the professional chefs participating in the program, including Dan Stacy, Barbara Frisbie, Rebecca Meeker, Sonya Coté and others, have their own non-traditional backgrounds—providing the advantage of more instant connections and even long-term mentoring relationships with the students.
But after meeting with representatives from the social-services agencies that serve foster-care youth, Fox and Johnson began to realize that exposure to the world of food would also educate these teens in a more basic way. “What we kept hearing was: OK, this is great, but you’re going to get the superstars,” recalls Fox, who has a master’s degree in social work and went through foster care herself. “You’re going to get the youth who will probably do all right with or without your program. Really, what we need is cooking education. We need food-accessibility resource information. We need them to basically learn how to go out to dinner.”
This dovetailed with what Fox already knew from her own experiences both in the system and as a volunteer. Many shelters have centralized kitchens with a limited number of staff members, who are unable to take the risks associated with young people cooking. In many foster homes the situation is similar. “I know some youths in homes where they actually put locks on refrigerators,” she notes. “And it’s not that foster parents are bad people. They are [often] dealing with eight to ten foster children with completely different issues such as eating disorders, hoarding, binging…things like that. So they definitely have to have some sort of system.”
All too often, this lack of exposure to the world of food results in sky-high obesity rates among former foster-care youth, and a lack of preparation for living in the real world. Thus, the scope of Fresh Chefs widened to include not only vocational training but also life-skills education—such as shopping at a grocery store, eating healthful foods and even stocking a pantry. Often, the events culminate in a shared meal with participating youth and volunteers sitting down together to eat a fresh, locally grown meal they helped prepare, on tables covered with real tablecloths and even fresh-cut flowers. “We want them to feel like they are deserving of sitting down and eating like this,” Johnson explains. “It’s such a great way to build memories.”
Daetrion White, an apprentice with the program who says he first learned to cook with his aunt, says Fresh Chefs Society gives him many opportunities to get into the kitchen—something he normally is not permitted to do in his foster home. “It’s really good,” he says. “It helps me be able to get out more and do something I love to do. They help me realize that I’m in foster care, but I don’t have to be, like, stuck there forever.”
Since August of 2012, Fresh Chefs Society has held 48 events and given approximately 250 foster-care youths a variety of culinary opportunities, including interactive cooking demonstrations and tastings, apprenticeships with professional catering companies and chefs, nutrition education and other life skills. In addition, the organization successfully helped lobby state legislators for a bill that was recently passed requiring more nutrition and cooking education for youth aging out of the foster-care system. But Fox says she is also focused on what grows out of the programs. “Our long-term goal is through food—just us sitting around cooking. Our supporters are talking to our youths, and they figure out they have something in common and they continue a relationship past that cooking event,” she notes. “What I always say is: even if it’s just once or twice, you still planted a seed. There’s a good chance you’re going to be the one piece of stability in that youth’s life, and if you don’t do anything else but just show up when you say you’re going to show up, that speaks volumes.” —Nicole Lessin
Visit freshchefssociety.org for more information.