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Marisa Churchill Headshot

The Bay Area's Homeless Cook Their Way to a Fresh Start

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(A student picking Swiss chard in the Fresh Start culinary garden)

"Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime."

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a group of friends at TBD, one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. As usual, we ordered way too much food. I had the leftovers boxed up, despite the fact that everyone in our group was headed out of town the next day. I hate wasting food. I was determined not to let the great meal go to waste. Walking back to my car, I passed a man in tattered clothes stepping off the bus. He was clutching a sign that said "homeless." I asked him if he wanted the leftovers I was carrying: braised pork, toasted Josey Baker bread topped with seaweed, and lightly fried sweet Shishito peppers. He smiled broadly and said "yes please, thank you!" Beneath the layers of dirt was the face of a young man in his twenties. I handed him the box, wished him a good night, and went on my way. But thoughts of him didn't leave my mind. I was headed home to a warm bed and heating. He was outside, exposed to the elements. His only happiness that day probably stemmed from the box of food I had given him, and the knowledge that on that particular night, he would not go hungry. I wondered, and still wonder, what was his story? He seemed perfectly sane and alert. He did not appear to have a drug problem or mental illness. How did he end up on the streets? Where are his parents? Doesn't he have relatives who could help him?

Homelessness is an issue that plagues every city. Yet in the Bay Area, one of the most sophisticated and wealthiest sections of America, we have an above average number of homeless people living in misery. In San Francisco you see them all the time. After a while you become immune to these individuals, often seeing right through them. I find it difficult to look past them. More importantly, I don't want to. I give a meal or a dollar from time to time. But I know there are better ways to help these people. In fact, I'm proud to say that I've tried to make myself a part of the solution when I can. With thoughts of that young homeless man still weighing on my mind, I thought I would share this story with all of you.

My hope is to spread the word on a few solutions, and how the culinary world is making a difference. Perhaps not every homeless person on the street can be saved, but more can be done. There are several organizations that are trying to make a difference. One San Francisco organization, where I have volunteered my time as a guest instructor, is C.H.E.F.S. (Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Service). Another wonderful program is Fresh Start Cooking School. Fresh Start is part of Homeward Bound of Marin. It's the county's main provider of shelter for homeless families and adults. They help 1,100 homeless people every year. What Homeward Bound of Marin and C.H.E.F.S. have both done is developed culinary programs that provide professional training and a self-sufficient lifestyle to their homeless residents. As a result, 75% of the individuals that leave their shelters find work in the food service industry, and are no longer living on the streets. They literally cook their way to a new life. These programs don't just make things better for a while. They change lives!

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(Fresh Start kitchen lineup for June 2014 with chef instructor Rocky)

To be honest with you, after working with many of these individuals, I would be more inclined to hire many of them than your average culinary school student. Why? These people are grateful to have a job. There is no ego involved, no job too small. If you want them to peel potatoes for an hour they will do it, without issue or complaint. The culinary industry is tough. These folks understand what it takes to push through when the going gets tough! It pleases me as a chef to see people that are excited and enthusiastic about going to work. As a human being, I'm happy to see these people break free from poverty and despair.

At Fresh Start they have added another (brilliant) element to their program. It's something that allows them to connect their students with working chefs, raise money, and get the whole community involved! Fresh Start offers cooking classes in their 3,000 square foot training kitchen. These classes involve guest chefs, such as Andrew Zimmerman, Joanne Weir, Michael Mina, yours truly, and many more. The cooking classes are not for the students, but for paying guests. Anyone in the community can attend and the proceeds go back into the Fresh Start program (so you have a fun night out, meet some of your favorite chefs, and give back to the community too!). On the evening of my healthy baking class, we had around 75 guests come to the class. The student chefs had the opportunity to assist the staff chef in working on advanced preparation for my recipes. Students also got to plate each dish, and serve guests. It was great training for everyone! The students developed new skills. Those of us lucky enough to go home every night got to see the faces of the people we were helping, people that have hopes and dreams, people that are no different from you and me.

Here are a few pictures from my Fresh Start healthy baking class. We really had a blast! Even though my class has already passed, I know they have a great lineup of guest chefs this fall. I hope some of you foodies will attend one of their upcoming food or wine classes. Their events are always great fun, and they really make a difference!

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(a student serving my gluten free carrot cake to guests)

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(keeping the audience entertained with the help of one of Fresh Start's culinary instructors Chef Rachelle, while students can be seen hard at work in the background)

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(a student helping to plate my desserts in the kitchen)

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(happy guests raise their glasses to the students)

You can learn more about Homeward Bound of Marin and their Fresh Start cooking school here.