‘Without a program like this, I’d probably still be sleeping’ Foodshare program lets homeless cook for themselves

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‘Without a program like this, I’d probably still be sleeping’ Foodshare program lets homeless cook for themselves


John Widecki hasn’t set foot in a kitchen for three years, but as soon as he picks up a honing steel to sharpen a blade for butterflying a pork loin he does it with such ease and finesse it looks like he could command any restaurant’s kitchen.

“I learned it by watching the Food Network,” he said. “It just feels good to start chopping and cooking again.”

Widecki has been living in a homeless shelter for the past three years after living on the streets for about three months. His landlord had asked him to move out to make way for another tenant. “I miss being able to make food, even the simple stuff like making popcorn on the stove,” he says. “It just feels good to be self-sufficient and be able to experiment in the kitchen.” So when given the opportunity to cook whatever he wanted, Widecki opted for the works: roasted pork loin stuffed with mushrooms and sausage; potato pancakes, grilled asparagus and a raspberry chocolate layer cake.

Resident John Widecki stuffs pork loins at FoodShare. “I miss being able to make food, even the simple stuff like making popcorn on the stove,” says Widecki. “It just feels good to be self-sufficient and be able to experiment in the kitchen.”

He and 11 other men who currently live in a shelter or are in transitional housing, are spending the afternoon at the kitchen of Foodshare, a non-profit organization that addresses food insecurity in Toronto through community programming and workshops. For the last six weeks, the organization has been testing out a pilot project that gives the men access to a kitchen and the ability to cook for themselves, as well as socialize with each other outside of the shelter where they live. This marks the final week of the trial program, but the organizers hope it continues in 2020.

“This program isn’t meant to be a cooking class, it’s recognizing that these people have the skills but no opportunities to practice them or pass them on to others,” said Jade Guthrie, Foodshare’s community kitchen facilitator and organizer of the program, called Cooking Up Community. “It’s about being able to share their knowledge and have the chance to be heard and seen.”

Guthrie wrote a proposal for the program in September, saying that she saw the need for more programming that helped homeless men and in particular, programs that connected them with food. She asked various homeless shelters if their residents would be interested in coming to Foodshare’s kitchen once a week to cook and share a meal. There was a lot of interest, but since it was a test project, she had to limit the number of participants. Over five weeks, Guthrie organized weekly cooking sessions with two shelters. Guthrie asked The Star not to name which shelters out of privacy for the residents. Participants loved it so much she added an extra week before the pilot program ended in mid-December.

It’s more than just cooking for the participants, it’s the opportunity to be out of a crowded shelter away from the constant surveillance. “At the shelter, you’re told things are against the rules or the menus are the same all the time so you just end up going out to eat,” said Widecki. “Without a program like this I’d probably still be sleeping.”

Adrian Humphreys, who previously worked in restaurants and spent 20 years working as a caregiver where he cooked for clients, said this is a learning opportunity. “Education in any form is important, and to see others learning, especially with food, means they’ll have a skill for life. It means they know how to make food rather than having to go out or that they know what’s going into their food so they can eat healthier.” He’s paired up with fellow shelter resident Johnny Corridon to tackle a chocolate cake.

Corridon speaks slowly, explaining that he had a stroke and has lost the ability to fully use the grip of his hand. Nonetheless, Corridon is mixing a chocolate frosting by hand until it’s silky smooth for the double-layer cake. The cake was a little under-baked at the end, said Humphreys, but nonetheless everyone enjoyed the moist, ultra rich cake made from scratch.

Resident Johnny Corridon makes a Raspberry Chocolate Layer Cake. The men have cooked quite a few meals at FoodShare, including a chicken stew from Corridon’s memories of growing up on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean.

The biggest challenge of the program, said Guthrie, is paying for transportation so the men can travel from downtown to Foodshare’s office in York Region. She hopes that her program would inspire other community-based organizations in the city to follow suit and create similar cooking initiatives with shelter residents. She also wants to keep the program going at Foodshare next year through grants and fundraising.

While Widecki took care of the pork, Carlos Martinez is leading the other men in making potato pancakes. His parents owned a restaurant in Toronto and his specialty is Ecuadorean cooking (he taught the men how to make empanadas last week). He also worked in banquet halls where cooking for 300 guests wasn’t out of the ordinary, so he was right at home in the kitchen. When it came to seasoning the potato pancakes, Martinez went off script from the recipe, adding a few handfuls of cheese to the potatoes and a generous dash of paprika. When they’re fried, they come out gloriously golden brown and crispy.

“My father and mother died a long time ago, and they worked in kitchens all their lives, so the kitchen is always in my heart,” he said, gesturing to his chest. “Here, I can cook my food and I can teach others what I learned.”

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Carlos Martinez poses with food he helped prepare. Martinez's parents owned a restaurant in Toronto and his specialty is Ecuadorean cooking.

The ability to give people a choice is what makes a program like this different, Foodshare’s executive director Paul Taylor said.

“If you’re homeless or street-involved, a lot of time someone decides what you should eat. Food is so connected to history and culture, and I love that the people here get to reconnect with their memories and knowledge of food. They just need a space or the equipment to do so,” he said. “It gets the guys smiling ear to ear and sharing their life stories.”

In addition to Martinez’ empanadas, they’ve also made bison burgers with one of the men whose grandfather taught him to hunt game as a kid, bannock from an Indigenous resident and a chicken stew from Corridon’s memories of growing up on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean.

“Toronto is an incredible food city, but so many people have so much trouble with food access,” said Taylor. “This creates the opportunity for people to reconnect with food and shatter the myth that homeless people don’t have assets to share.”

Karon Liu

Karon Liu is the Star’s food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu





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