By Anjli Mehta
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series that features the 2014 grant recipients of the Austin Food and Wine Alliance Culinary Grant Program.
When the Austin Food and Wine Alliance gave out $30,000 in grants last year to five local food businesses and nonprofits, Shaleiah Fox was beyond excited to accept $5,000 for her nonprofit, Fresh Chefs Society. The local non-profit provides cooking classes for youth and focuses on those transitioning out of the foster care system.
As a former foster care youth herself, Fox personally knows the struggle the transition can bring to children. She focused her graduate work and volunteer efforts on figuring out how the community can rise up to fill the gaps in services for kids leaving foster care. In 2012, Fresh Chefs Society was born. Fox created the non-profit with her co-founder, McCall Johnson. She felt that providing cooking classes would do more than simply teach kids to cook, it would give them a sense of control over their lives once they were finally out on their own.
What were the thoughts or moments that led to Fresh Chefs Society? Where did it begin and why?
Being former foster care myself, the struggle youth face is something I know on a personal level. When a youth ages out of care, there is so much to know, to be responsible for and to take on all at once. Cooking is not only an important life skill to have, it can be a relatively easy and effective way for youth to establish a small sense of control over their life once they are out on their own.
I often explain to our youth that cooking not only nourishes you and the people you are cooking for—it provides an opportunity to explore your cultural identity and create a new family through traditions like potlucks and holiday dinners. A lot of youth don’t have a connection to their family that they can call on, but they have these happy memories of being in the kitchen with family members that cooking evokes. Cooking is therapy.
What’s a typical cooking class like and what kinds of takeaways or lessons can the children learn?
A small group of youth gather around a kitchen to discuss the menu and/or recipe and provide input on what to cook. Tasks are divided up and demonstrations are provided for each step. Then the cooking commences! When everything is done, we all sit down as a group, enjoy and discuss what we liked and didn’t like and what we’ll want to try again. Cooking usually takes place at foster care facilities, supporter homes, or the homes of youth themselves, and they can last anywhere from one to three hours.
We want the youth to learn that cooking is an important element of control; with the right skill set, utensils and safety measures, it is easy to be a home cook.
You’ve been able to connect with local chefs to lead some of these classes. Who are some chefs and restaurants you’ve gotten to work with on this program?
So many! Sonya Cote of Hillside Farmacy and Eden East, Rebecca Meeker with Josephine House, Alex Gates with Hotel Saint Cecilia, Joe Hummel with Rockstar Bagels, and then restaurants like Winflo, Hoover’s Home Cooking, and Royal Fig Catering.
What goals were you able to achieve with your AFWA grant?
This is the first year that we’ve been able to respond to all requests for cooking education by the foster care community. We’ve been able to hold a minimum of two iCook Education Programs a month, surpassing our original goals in our grant application.
These programs include hands-on cooking education classes, where youth learn vital food preparation skills important kitchen safety information, and how to practice smart food choices while shopping and meal planning. We’re also able to host Guest Chef nights, where individuals from the community spend an evening in a foster care facility, cooking, teaching and sharing a positive food experience.
Additionally, the grant has not only provided funds for food and cooking supplies, it has given us the ability to build out our program by increasing our capacity to follow up with youth after they participate in an iCook Education Program. By keeping them engaged, we keep them cooking, trying new things and continuously creating their own eating lifestyle.
What’s next for Fresh Chefs Society? What are some things you’d like to accomplish down the road?
We will be purchasing an additional iCook class cooking set up so we are able to hold more than one cooking program at once and in various locations. Also, Fresh Chefs is the only organization of its kind in the state of Texas. We’d really like to be able to expand our services outside of Austin and eventually the entire state.
You can find more information about Fresh Chefs Society cooking classes here.