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Let’s Eat: Food as a starting point

Roots to Harvest’s Culture Kitchen program provides a safe place for women to build relationships and learn new things. 

Culture Kitchen is up and running again, after a year off due to COVID. 

Roots to Harvest started the program in 2019, aiming to give skills and confidence to newly-arrived immigrant women. At the time, the program was geared towards Syrian refugees, but gradually has shifted to a more diverse group. 

Airin Stephens, program director of employment, education and advocacy at Roots to Harvest says they structured the program around cooking because food is something we all love. “It’s just an easy entry point,” she explains. 

The women come to Roots to Harvest three afternoons a week, for six weeks. Since the majority of the participants speak Arabic, there is an interpreter for that language. It starts off with a safe food handling course taught by the health unit. The women can take a written test or oral test, depending on what they are more comfortable with. “It’s interesting that you need 70 per cent to pass, but this group always gets 90 per cent or higher,” remarks Stephens. 

One aim of the program is to give women the skills and knowledge they would need if they want to start a home-based food business.    “The group we have now, three of them want to start their own home-catering business,” says Stephens. “They’re really excited to meet with chefs or people who started businesses on their own.”

Running a food-business requires more than just cooking delicious food, so once or twice a week, local women who have successful food businesses come in to share their knowledge and experience, as well as teach them new recipes. Rhonda Bill, (owner/chef of A Fine Fit Catering,) Tracey Berry Werkentin, (owner/chef of Freelance Catering, and owner of the French Fryer,) and red seal chef Rachel Bayes are frequent guests. 

Culture Kitchen isn’t just about food and business, though. It has become a safe place where women can meet new people, and practice speaking English with their peers in the program as well as with the staff at Roots to Harvest. “It’s a way for them to focus on their own personal learning, outside their family,” Stephens adds.

The group of 10 women from Morocco, India, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Sudan are making new friends, and trying new foods and recipes. “These women bonded over their similarities and differences,” says the program director.

Not all the participants end up pursuing a culinary career, but some past participants have done so with success. According to Stephens, another participant found a job at the local meal prep company Breakfast, Lunch and Deener.

After six weeks at Culture Kitchen, the women will get back together in mid-May for Dinner Dash, where people can sign up for a four-week subscription of takeout meals. “Once a week, you can pick up your meal. It’s a neat way to do takeout, experience different foods,” she says. 

Through the experience, the participants, who say they cook “with their heart and hands” will learn how to prepare food in a commercial setting - for example, how to set a budget, or how to write down a recipe for consistency. For many, it will also be the first time they are paid for their cooking.

Dinner Dash will be announced closer to May - if you’re interested, watch out for it, because spots have sold out early in previous years. 

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