Knife skills and life skills at Kitchens for Good

As part of an ongoing effort to bring in ideas and inspiration to you from across the world, I've taken a little American detour recently to visit a team who are quietly making history. They are called Kitchens for Good, and are planted in the middle of a tight grid of suburban blocks east of San Diego's CBD.

For those playing at home, San Diego's east is roughly the geographical equivalent of Sydney's west. Socially and economically, this community has a different profile. For us, post-invasion history and our relatively wet borders have resulted in a different immigration story with its own features and issues. However, it can be safely said that the communities of both cities exist with similar basic needs. While it's true that Australians enjoy the buffer of socialised healthcare, human beings left in the service gaps of both countries need the same things. If they are in a cycle of violence, trauma, homelessness, incarceration, or emerging from short lifetimes of foster care, these needs require highly-specialised support.

That's where Kitchens for Good comes in.

Californians may occupy the same physical space as the biggest tech campuses in the world, but they are also world leaders in social innovation. As rapidly as media outlets try to figure out who to blame for poverty and homelessness, the community sector rolls up its sleeves to deliver everyday relief. Every now and again, a story will scramble its way into your feed; a tale of survival and redemption... a social housing project... an environmentalist with a great idea... a peer-to-peer mentoring program. As Mary from Kitchens for Good explained to me over lunch last week, American excellence in social enterprise has been borne of necessity. Skyrocketing rents drive masses of people to the street and successful start-ups are the new American dream. They've simply had to come up with new ways to feed people without counting on politicians for revenue. The same new thinkers are also beginning to see fundamental flaws in the old "soup kitchen" model.

Co-founder and Senior Director Aviva Paley says that she had been working many years in the food non-profit sector before she joined Chuck Samuelson in starting Kitchens for Good in 2014. She told me the origin story.

Kitchens for Good Co-Founder and Senior Director, Aviva Paley.

"Chuck has spent a lifetime in the industry as a chef and restaurateur, and comes from a similar background to many of our students. He really got his life back on track through kitchens and cooking. He quit his highly-successful day job as a chef to start Kitchens for Good, and about eight months in, I joined him on that journey."

Aviva says that a lot of hunger relief efforts at the time felt like they were putting a band-aid on the much deeper issue of poverty.

"You could give someone a meal that day, but the very next day they would be hungry again. It's not so much the issue of there not being enough food, but people not having the money in their pocket to buy that food. I was really looking to create some kind of organisation that would not only try to feed people in the food line, but shorten the line itself... to allow people to take hold of their own economic self-sufficiency."

Chuck and Aviva spent around 18 months as Kitchens for Good without a kitchen, as they searched for the right site and funding. In September 2015, they moved into their current site in San Diego's eastern "Promise Zone"; an initiative rolled out by the Obama administration to attempt to discourage "top-down" social solutions. Its aim, in short, was to award more control of Federal anti-poverty initiatives to the locals on the ground in areas most affected by poverty. In the case of San Diego's eastern suburbs, this highly-collaborative approach has seen orgs and residents alike rewarded.

Lindsey Seegers is the Food Systems Manager at "KFG", and she greets me with the same keenly intuitive smile I've seen so many times before from those working in the same space.

She's chewing as she enters the reception area. I immediately feel guilty for interrupting her meal and offer to wait longer so that she can take a full lunchbreak. However, she assures me that at Kitchens For Good, something's always ready to eat and everyone takes a little nibble when they can, because, well... it's delicious.

Kitchens For Good are elbow-deep in their fifth year of trade. They are already winning prestigious, consecutive annual awards for their catering, and against entirely commercial enterprises.

"We're really opening the door, and it's them doing the work to walk through that door. We hear from students that they feel they're shedding layers of themselves. They may have previously just seen themselves as a 'foster kid'... but now they identify differently. They will say, 'I'm a cook,' or, 'I'm a chef.'"

Lindsey says, "We're a tuition-free cooking school for individuals coming out of long-term incarceration, foster care and homelessness. We're the first certified culinary apprenticeship program in California. It means that our students earn as they learn from day one. They are paid to be part of our culinary program, learning both life skills and knife skills."

Participants in the program are undertaking self-development and basic work skills training as well as the more obvious cookery and food handling component of the intensive twelve-week course. This is in conjunction with personal budgeting and professional interpersonal skills.

KFG cooks have consistently found sustainable employment in San Diego's most prestigious hotel and restaurant kitchens, and are backed by two-year ongoing support (yes, two years). Line cooks, sous chefs and even executive chefs across San Diego credit Kitchens For Good with their early preliminary training, and make regular visits back to the facility to deliver class talks and shoot the breeze. In the short time KFG has been in operation, other exec chefs have heard of their high standard of training, and make contact in search of reliable, hardworking recruits.

As well as equipping participants with lifechanging skills and confidence, Kitchens for Good is committed to reducing food waste in the San Diego area, and Lindsey opens the coolroom to display shelves and boxes laden with fresh produce.

She explains, "There's so much food being wasted, and people being 'wasted' too, being perceived as unemployable or a drain on society. So how can we take this perceived and actual waste going on, and utilise that in a way that creates a beneficial cycle?"

Staff from Kitchens for Good rescue fruits and vegetables from farmer's markets on Sunday afternoons which have failed to sell but are perfectly fresh. Other items are from specialty produce suppliers; the same that supply the city's elite restaurants. Much of the produce is from the "ugly" box but to Kitchens for Good, that food is no less beautiful or nutritious. All ingredients are procured either for free or at some cost to the organisation, depending on what is needed to deliver to paying clients (the "enterprise" part of their social enterprise). All of this value-adding with underappreciated vegetables is a pretty nice analogy for the human element of their organisation, too.

KFG also compost their waste, ensuring that their waste-reduction philosophy is followed through entirely. The random nature of food rescue keeps staff and students on their toes, forcing them to work creatively with whatever produce happens to come in the door.

Kitchens For Good feeds San Diego's most vulnerable populations with hot meals prepared from scratch by participants, and Lindsey points out the discrepancy between the minimum State requirements for nutritional content, and the reality of what is a truly healthful meal for someone in need of high-value sustenance. Kitchens For Good hold themselves to the higher standard of the latter, and also seek to provide food that is familiar and comforting to residents of the surrounding US/Mexico border suburbs. In today's meal trays, I can see beans and rice; staples of the Mexican pantry.

Just as I begin to wander and do my usual immersive journalism thing, Lidia Castillo and her expert participants pull a fresh tray of tamales from the oven, taking on an almost clinically-serious demeanour as they sort through each tamale. They are ensuring that each one is cooked through, properly holding its filling and shape. The participants may technically be students, but the lifelong experiences of some of these foods for them are an almost visceral or spiritual level of knowledge that flows back into the collective learning experience in equal intensity.

People of KFG uncover a steaming batch of freshly-made tamales. Kitchens For Good is an org comprised of diverse Americans who create dishes that are familiar, nutritious and comforting for their clients.

It is this open exploration of identity which appears to hold such transformative power for participants of the program. Lindsey clearly takes joy in describing that process:

"We don't like to use the word 'empowered'; we like to think we're 'equipping'. We're really just opening the door, and it's them doing the work to walk through that door. We hear from students that they feel they're shedding layers of themselves. They may have previously seen themselves as just a 'foster kid'... but now they identify differently. They will say, 'I'm a cook,' or, 'I'm a chef.' They may become a homeowner. It's all part of this new way of defining themselves. Stepping into that new career path for them, even as early on as this, can make all the difference. It's a sense of, 'This is who I am, now.'"

Alex, 21, was born and raised in San Diego. He is now a proud graduate of the twelve-week program, and has embarked upon the first days of his internship.

He says, "It's been a fun ride. I've learned that I'm very good with my hands, but I'm kinda lousy at listening. My biggest challenge and my biggest goal has been to follow directions. I tend to second-guess myself. I will listen, but then I will think, 'Uhhh.... is this the right thing?' And I will start wondering, and won't know what to do, you know? So it's been helping me with my confidence. Just being in the kitchen, cooking food, getting it right, and watching others enjoy my food... it's just given me the confidence I need. I know now that I can do it."

Walking through KFG's cluster of kitchens, coolrooms, drystores, learning spaces and offices, my tourist's perception has an inkling that the ancient ancestry of this diverse group fills the air. Quite literally. The aroma of steaming corn tortillas, marinating pork, beans and cornhusks reminds me that I'm only a stone's throw from the Mexican border. I hear multiple languages spoken in another room... and in the same conversation. I hear three different American English accents.

To an Australian, the concept of a national border upon land is odd, but we've heard so much about walls and US politics that it's been an unavoidable lesson in how governments have a relationship of convenience with sovereignty; with responsibility. However, those unpleasantries seem so far away, here at this place. My biracial face isn't out of place, with every imaginable American represented, including on their 96-strong payroll, volunteer force and executive board. Volunteers get involved as individuals or in groups. Corporate teams find what they're looking for, with teambuilding days spent on the benches. Some volunteers come back regularly, some don't. All are welcome.

The experience ends with a bountiful, fragrant shared meal with new friends. It's my first real taste of scratch-made American food on American soil, and I'm so emotionally moved by the experience that I'm a little choked-up as I'm affectionately barked-at to fill my plate with more and more steaming samples from the baine marie. What a welcome to the Americas. I'm quite ignorant about how to really eat this food properly, and I'm given a patient tutorial. The general gist, however, is that I am to fill my plate beyond its physical capacity, sit with them, and then eat until I am so full I can see into other dimensions.

And the food?


I am sent away with a doggybag and good wishes for my boyfriend. Two hours ago, we'd never even met, but I have a new family here that I hope to return to sometime... maybe help out once a month and beg them to teach me how to make real tamales.

Future plans for Kitchens for Good are well underway, with two new locations opening in 2019. Kitchens for Good are set to not only change lives but conversations about employability, environment and food security. Along with their own goals, others around the world are able to look to orgs like theirs to understand successful models and approaches.

Organisations with volunteer workforces can also learn from KFG's structured "volunteer lead" system to manage large and changing volunteer groups. KFG's volunteer network is a an exercise in levelling group dynamics, using traditional kitchen management principles. Court-ordered volunteers who are required to complete community service work on the same terms and in the same kitchens as corporate groups. Lindsey says that the org offers a "dignified" experience of community service.

She explains, "Court-ordered volunteers work alongside others who have made mistakes... what I love is that everyone's here on equal terms in the kitchen. Everyone's cutting an onion! There's no sense of, 'Oh, you've gotta go clean toilets because you're a court-ordered volunteer.'"

Across Australia and the US, there is a constant stream of potential workers being released from prison into increasingly competitive job markets. In San Diego, KFG captures around a hundred of those each year, with quarterly cohorts set to increase with each new site running its first classes. For some, their twelve weeks at Kitchens for Good is their first real experience of a fulltime job.

"Our students have that real on-the-job experience, clocking in and clocking out. They're working front-of-house and back-of-house, where they're getting that full picture of what hospitality really looks like. They get to learn how to make it beautiful, they get to learn how to colour co-ordinate. A lot of them get to cook in prison, but it's basically just slop. There's not a whole lot of room for creativity. However, a lot of people tell stories about how much they would cook with their parents and grandparents as children. One of our students was known for foraging through the dumpster when she was in prison. She would recruit helpers to get all the best ingredients and get really creative. Now, she's Executive Chef at a fine dining Italian restaurant."

As I'm sent stumbling back out into the sunshine loaded with rice, beans, pork, tamales and audio recordings I will treasure for life, I turn and look back at the humble building where so much hope is generated each and every day. It's still possible to save the world. Kitchens for Good, and organisations like them, will save it.

It might be a little hard to volunteer at Kitchens For Good from our location here in Western Sydney, but you can support their programs by clicking here.

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