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Food as a Teacher

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Fresh Chefs Society connects those in the food-service industry with foster-care youth to help prepare them for adulthood.

By Madison Matous, Photos courtesy of Brio Photography 

Food is known to bring people together. And that’s exactly what Fresh Chefs Society is doing. The organization brings together people in the food-service industry with youth in the foster-care system to create a safe place for kids to learn the skills they need to be successful adults, as well as embrace a sense of stability that is often absent in their lives. When growing up, most of us have family and mentors to guide us on our paths to becoming independent, but foster-care youth don’t always have that, particularly as they age out of the system and have to face the real world.

Growing up in the foster-care system until she was 11, Shaleiah Fox knows the struggles that often come with such a life. Naturally, her main focus in her graduate and volunteer work was on foster-care youth. When she came to Austin, she saw the opportunity to bring the two together.

“When I moved to Austin, I was struck by the incredible generosity of the city, specifically  the food community, and I really wanted to use that as a tool to connect the community to youth in foster care and empower that community to give back,” Fox says.

Most people understand the system is fraught with issues, but a lot of the more obvious ways to help involve major commitments. Fox wanted to create a way people could more easily give back while engaging with the youth in a positive manner. Fresh Chefs Society helps bridge that gap through food.

The mission of Fresh Chefs is to empower foster-care youth by teaching them the skills they need to enter the workforce and, of course, how to cook for themselves. Additionally, Fox explains it’s valuable for youth to understand food-industry workers don’t necessarily have to go the traditional educational route to make a good living, as long as they are willing to work hard, and that finding a good restaurant to work in can be like finding a family.

One of the key programs at Fresh Chefs involves apprenticeship. Through the program, youth learn about working in the food industry, as well as how to develop job-interview techniques and other employment-focused skills. Upon completion of the program, youth obtain a food-handler’s certificate and become part of the Fresh Chefs alumni network, through which they have access to job opportunities and continuing education.

“We create that environment through the apprenticeship program to where we are there for them to show them how to be good employees, but we do it through food because it is a safe, positive, therapeutic, creative space,” Fox says.

Young participants are paid for the work they do during the apprenticeship and are able to add the experience to their resumes. They each also get a kitchen-startup kit so they will have everything they need to cook at home for themselves when they are on their own.

Besides the apprenticeship, Fresh Chefs also hosts potlucks and cooking demonstrations and provides an array of basic cooking lessons. The potlucks, offered bimonthly in the home of a volunteer or chef, give those in the community the chance to share a meal with the foster youth.

“We know what’s possible when we all gather around the table and share a meal,” Fox says. “We realize that we are far more alike than different.”

She compares food to language in that it has the ability to bring people together and facilitate sometimes difficult but important conversations.

The central focus of teaching youth to cook for themselves is to build self-efficacy and to help build up their confidence for life after foster care, regardless of whether they decide to pursue a career in the food industry. It’s also about making connections with future employers and mentors.

Both foster-care youth and chefs benefit from the program, Fox notes.

“Foster care is transient,” she says. “They are taken from their home and can face up to seven placement disruptions during their time in care, and because of this, it’s hard to stay connected to youth in care. And the reason we know what we’re doing is right is that over 60 percent of the people that come into the program stay in touch.”

As for what chefs get out of being involved with Fresh Chefs, it gives them a platform through which they can talk about what they love most and share their passion and knowledge with students, thereby creating a whole new generation of people who love food and appreciate the power food has to bring us together.

 

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