On a Peace Corps mission in South Africa, Mississippi-bred Marisa Stubbs wanted to make flour tortillas from scratch. There was just one problem. No rolling pin. She created relatively round tortillas nonetheless—with a drinking glass. All the more satisfying for the challenge. It was then Stubbs realized “you don’t have to have exactly what something says to make it work.”
Stubbs went on inventing after returning to the states—founding her own mission in a church kitchen in southeast D.C., around the corner from the U.S. Capitol. At Food For Life, launched in 2013, disconnected young adults out of school and out of work are offered an opportunity to build a brighter future. Through a program that combines culinary training, work readiness, and good habit building, FFL students are nudged toward productive living, whether the next step is culinary school, commercial driving, customer service, hospitality management, or cutting vegetables with precision at the Shake Shack down the road.
Small groups of 18- to 23-year-olds meet in the basement of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church for 20 or more hours each week, in six- to nine-week sessions. They learn the ins and outs of a professional kitchen while preparing gourmet takeout meals from scratch for customers who place their orders online. The group also caters events, from fancy family dinners to company BBQs. Participants also take classes that “explore food, food culture…and how faith and food connect.” Periodically, FFL students prepare breakfast foods to donate to a local homeless café.
When participants arrive, Stubbs makes it clear she’s not there “to solve them.” She encourages them to get their troubles out on the table so they can start building a structure of accountability. It is often challenging to get students to show up on time, to follow through on tasks, to manage stress and conflict, control their impulses, and finish tasks. By encouraging her young chefs to learn from the past and meet present challenges with diligence, Stubbs instills steadfastness and a feeling that says “I can.”
“I don’t glamorize the industry,” she says, acknowledging that culinary work can be demanding. In addition to strengthening their work ethic, students gain valuable assistance from volunteers with backgrounds in education and career services. Through mock interviews and other preparation, students learn how to acquire jobs, and then hold onto them. An early evaluation showed that after one year, 70 percent of FFL graduates were either employed or continuing their education or training.
Janelle Smith is one shining example. After sharpening her knife skills and learning how to sauté and blanch, Smith graduated from the program in May. She then enrolled at the Lincoln Culinary Institute in Columbia, Maryland, where her FFL experience allowed her to place out of basic training courses, and was soon on the dean’s list. The path to professional chef-hood is “a commitment,” she says, but “I don’t mind burning myself and getting a few cuts, because it’s something I love to do.”
Food For Life currently operates under the wing of the Care Company, a nonprofit that nurtures several ministries like it in the D.C. area. Care Company provides accounting services, insurance coverage, and office space, but 92 percent of FFL’s expenses are covered by donors (60 percent) or meal sales and event fees (the rest).
Stubbs currently trains about 30 students per year. She would like to expand the program, offer longer training sessions for those who need them, and hire chef instructors so she can dedicate more of her own time to individual counseling and work placement. She envisions FFL becoming a transitional employment site for graduates, like the FareStart restaurant in Seattle that has trained thousands of homeless, former prisoners, long-term unemployed, and other economic strugglers through its culinary-training program, while serving over 6 million meals to the public, allowing a temporary first paying job for many of its graduates. Another inspiration is D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that has been combating hunger and creating opportunity since 1989 through culinary instruction and social enterprise.
Few things smell better than a kitchen bubbling up with shrimp ’n’ grits, roasted corn polenta, and chocolate caramel tart with raspberries, mint, and a drizzle of crème anglaise. But things more lasting than a good meal leave the kitchen at Food For Life and other programs in this area that are well-run. Students who learn how to cook up a promising future through the art of food, says Stubbs, are “proud to finish and take the next step toward their dreams.”