Teen Kitchen Project is teaching young people how to make an impact, one meal at a time
Imagine the mountains that could be moved if teenage idealism never faded. It’s an ambitious goal, but local nonprofit Teen Kitchen Project is harnessing teenage zeal to connect young people to their community by showing them firsthand how their passion can make a difference in people’s lives.
“Some people have a [negative image of] young people, [but] a lot of them are very compassionate individuals who want to share with the world their good qualities,” says Angela Farley, founder of the Teen Kitchen Project. “We’re giving young people an opportunity not only to serve and show they’re compassionate people and have value in our community—we also show them a new career.”
Teen Kitchen Project teaches teenagers how to cook healthy sustainable meals that they then deliver to people in crisis—those in temporary situations where they cannot cook for themselves, often due to illness. Last week alone, Teen Kitchen served 390 meals, and last year they served 15,400 meals in total.
Farley knows all too well how difficult it can be to put food on the table in times of unimaginable stress; when her son was 4 years old, he was undergoing chemotherapy and major surgery for cancer.
“In the beginning there was a lot of meal delivery from friends and family, and after a few months of that people stopped signing up,” says Farley. “Around the same time I received a one-year donation of blue plate specials from Gayle’s and I went ‘I know so many people who could benefit from that.’”
Gayle’s Bakery’s ready-made pick-up meals inspired Farley, and when she heard about an organization in Sebastopol called Ceres Community Project which teaches teenagers how to cook meals to deliver to people in similar situations, she decided Santa Cruz needed the same thing. In 2012, she started Teen Kitchen Project in a friend’s commercial kitchen as a Ceres affiliate.
“We found out very soon that we wouldn’t be able to serve everyone,” says Farley. “For people with chronic conditions, we refer them to other organizations like Meals on Wheels.”
All meals are cooked and prepared by the 200 or so teens who volunteer with the Project. With the guidance of two chaperoning chefs (trained as nutritionists), they first learn knife skills and food safety and then prepare meals that are organic, locally sourced, and healthy. “Delivery angels” deliver three main dishes for each person in a family twice a week; meals typically consist of a protein like chicken or fish, soup, salad, and dessert, with recipes one-and-a-half the USDA’s portion guidelines so that they can last several days.
“We kind of get people in two times when they’re open to seeing the world in a different way. Teens are at the cusp of going into the world and creating their own life, and suffering from illness, people want to make changes in their lives to recover,” says Farley.
All ingredients are organic, sustainably caught and farmed, limit dairy input with no white flour or sugar, says Farley, and adhere to the American Cancer Society’s recommended diet.
For teens like Kelly Kirchener, a senior at Pacific Collegiate School, putting in the 200-odd hours has never felt like a chore. She finds herself checking nutrition labels far more than her peers, she says, and she’s learned many tricks of the trade—like that beets can really, really stain.
“It’s helped me to be a better person,” Kirchener says. “In writing the cards that go with the meals, something like ‘We’re here for you’—just a few words—can go a long way.”
Farley says that her plans for Teen Kitchen are to expand it to Watsonville to better reach the community in South County and collaborate with Cabrillo College’s culinary program.
“We’re showing them a way of eating that they can use in their lives to move forward, be more healthy and connected to their environment,” says Farley. “The face of a teen when a client says ‘You helped save my life’—what teen hears that? To hear that from somebody is a big deal, it changes your perception of yourself and your values.”
KITCHEN WITH A CAUSE From left to right: Colby Sturgill, Chloe Chipman and Austin Sturgill of Teen Kitchen Project. PHOTO: SUSANNAH GILL