January 29, 2018
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This nonprofit does more than provide meals to those in need, it teaches them how to cook

For 25 years, Seattle's FareStart 'uses food as a tool to transform lives'

Part of the Seattle community for more than 25 years, FareStart provides job training and placement for adults and youth experiencing poverty and homelessness. Photo courtesy of FareStart

When the nonprofit FareStart launched in Seattle in 1992, it couldn’t have predicted the scale to which Seattle would grow in the coming decades.

Since the 1990s, Seattle has grown as a hub for tech titans such as Microsoft and Amazon—and the ensuing influx of employees and have driven housing prices to some of the highest in the country.

Now, as Seattle grows by an estimated 220 residents each day, organizations such as FareStart, which trains people for entry into the foodservice industry, are more essential than ever before.

“It’s harder to live in Seattle,” says Stephanie Schoo, Marketing and Communications Director at FareStart. The organization’s work, she says, is critical—”especially if you’re experiencing homelessness. You need to get on that first rung of the ladder.”

I spoke to Schoo about the organization’s 25 years of work in Seattle, and its efforts to adapt as the city grows and changes. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

To start off, let’s talk about the basics. What is FareStart’s mission?

FareStart is a nonprofit organization that uses food as a tool to transform lives. More specifically, we provide job training to adults and youth within the culinary and foodservice industry, and almost all of the people we work with are living in poverty. Many are experiencing homelessness. This is an avenue for them to get trained and back on their feet and on the road out of poverty.

Initially, our organization was started as a for-profit entity called Common Meals. Chef David Lee, who was a local chef here in Seattle, wanted to provide quality nutritious meals to folks who were living in homeless shelters. He wanted to help bring dignity to the folks who were living in those shelters. As he was doing that, he got to know some of the residents that were living in the shelters and he had this idea: Well, maybe if I can bring some of those shelter residents back to my kitchen, they can help prepare the meals and also they could also learn a new skill that may get them out of the homeless shelter longer-term.

Then, 25 years ago, the organization had a paradigm shift where we became a nonprofit and the focus became less on providing meals to shelters—which we still do—and more on the training aspect to help provide a longer-term solution to homelessness and poverty.

Tell me a bit about the services FareStart offers to the community.

We’ve got multiple programs. Our foundational program is our Adult Culinary Program, a 16-week program for folks that are in deep poverty. Many of them experiencing homelessness. We’re teaching them the fundamentals of culinary skills. As part of that, we provide all kinds of support along the way. We work on stuff like the hard skills of how to chop a carrot, but also the softer skills: how do you work with people, how do you deal with stress in the kitchen, how—if you’re feeling lower or have low self-esteem—do you work from your inner-greatness and keep that inner gremlin on the back burner.

Photo courtesy of FareStart

We have a Youth Barista Program, which is a collaboration with a local Seattle nonprofit, YouthCare, that works with youths that are on the street and experiencing homelessness as well. We also have a youth culinary program, a partnership with Seattle Public Schools Interagency Academy, that serves as an alternate way for students to get their high school diploma.

We just launched a food service apprenticeship program. This is for folks who are still living in poverty, but they have some foundational support. They’re not experiencing homelessness. They’ve been in the food service industry for at least six months and they just need additional skills, more advanced skills, to skill up into more living wage positions in the foodservice industry.

That’s the crux of our four different job training programs. Most training takes place in our restaurants and cafes and catering businesses. It’s real life, on the job, this is how it works. The revenue from those businesses goes right back into our training program, so it’s a very sustainable business model.

What do you think are FareStart’s biggest achievements of the past 25 years?

The main thing is that we’ve evolved along with Seattle. As Seattle has grown and evolved and the needs have changed in the community we’ve evolved right along with them. Initially we started with a focus on adults, but when we started seeing youths on the streets and youth homelessness, we knew that we had to adapt. So we developed the youth barista program, and the youth culinary program.

As Seattle has grown dramatically, particularly in the last ten to 12 years, we’ve seen that there’s more income disparity. It’s harder to live in Seattle. The cost of living has increased and that’s why we want to develop new programs that focus on living wage jobs. The adult culinary program, which is our bread and butter, which has been around for the last 25 years, is still critical, especially if you’re experiencing homelessness. You need to get on that first rung of the ladder. Entry wage jobs are really important, but how can we get folks past those entry wage jobs into living wage positions?

Thanks to a recent partnership with Amazon, FareStart received roughly 25,000 square feet of space. How has that space been put to use?

We have five new eateries: a full-service restaurant, a coffee shop, and then we have three fast-casual eateries that are branded under an umbrella name, Community Table. We’re getting rave reviews across the board on the eateries, and they’re continuing to grow. We’re still in the initial stages of growing those businesses.

Same thing with our apprenticeship program, which we launched in June. Right now we’ve got 15 active apprentices in our program. We’re still growing that program as well and we anticipate, over the next few years, growing that to 75 to 100 apprentices each year.

As you mentioned, there’s a huge problem with housing in Seattle. How does FareStart’s work interest with the issues plaguing Seattle right now?

We work with a lot of partners around housing. One of the services that we provide is housing, and we do that by working with various partners that have shelters and transitional housing where we can place our students so they can focus on their training.

FareStart serves a number of marginalized communities that experience serious social stigma. What’s one thing that you would want outsiders—people outside of Seattle, people unfamiliar with FareStart’s work—to know about the people you’re working with?

We believe that a person’s past is their past, and it doesn’t necessarily dictate their future. We believe in giving folks second chances. Everyone deserves respect and dignity. Our students play a big role in finding that within themselves. That’s a big part of what we do: helping folks realize that they do matter, and that they deserve to be able to work and to be able to have a home.

A lot of folks that come to us, using their own words, they come to us “broken”—they feel broken, they feel like they don’t matter. We help them find that spark within them so that they can transform their lives and succeed.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.