Weston organization fighting food insecurity with cooking classes

The Green Line team visited Frontlines, a youth charity in Weston, to learn how its unique program is teaching 18-to-29-year-olds how to cook for community members.

By Amanda Seraphina, Julia Lawrence, and Anita Li with The Green Line

Mounting food costs in recent years have left many Toronto families struggling to put food on the table.

That’s why one Weston-based organization is taking a creative approach to fighting food insecurity by teaching cooking skills to local youth.

Residents in the northwest Toronto neighbourhood struggle with a lack of food. In 2021, over 6,200 people accessed food banks in Toronto’s York South-Weston riding, according to Feed Ontario, the province’s largest collective of hunger-relief organizations.

That’s where Frontlines comes in.

The youth charity has a Culinary Arts Program that teaches 18-to 29-year-olds how to cook for community members. It’s a one-two-punch solution that provides hot meals for local residents, and employable skills for the youth who participate.

Pie chart depiction of food-insecure population in the York South-Weston riding in 2021. CITYNEWS/Paul Zwambag

Frontlines graduate and Chef at the Weston Golf Club, Jeffrey Osbourne, said it provides what they call a one-two punch solution, hot meals for residents and employable skills for the youth who participate.

“We train them basic culinary arts, culinary skills, and we move up from there, elevate ourselves. So it’s like Frontlines is just that road to get you to where you want to go,” said Osbourne. “Even if you’re not a cook, Frontlines, they have your back. They make sure you’re good.”

“They deal with you like you’re family, so they just make you feel welcome.”

Anton Lewis, graduate and chef at Frontlines, stands outside the Frontlines building. CITYNEWS/James Tumelty

Graduates of the culinary arts program also receive food handler and Smart Serve certificates. Some even end up with jobs at Frontlines, like Anton Lewis.

“Outside of physical skills, like, cutting, peeling and, you know, learning the science of food, from a more like…food insecurity [perspective], I am more aware and cautious of waste, which is a big thing,” Lewis said. “So, at home, I just make sure we’re recycling. We don’t throw away stuff that people often throw away.”

“But also, it’s just an awareness. You treat people differently in the sense of you are servicing more.”

Frontlines feeds an average of 250 families each year since COVID-19 began. Executive director Stachen Lett-Frederick says Weston’s need is what led to the creation of the Culinary Arts Program.

“On a Thursday when we have members of the community come here, we have about 50 to 75 families coming for support — and that is just on one particular day. There are many other community organizations in this community that also see those numbers and more because we are not a food bank. We are just an organization that has an amazing culinary program,” Lett-Frederick explained.

“The youth that are part of the culinary program want to give back to the community. And so, we just only see a snapshot of what is happening in our community around food insecurity.”

Graph depiction of median household income in Weston compared to the rest of Toronto in 2016. CITYNEWS/Paul Zwambag

Lori Nikkel, CEO of food rescue charity Second Harvest, said 58 per cent of the food produced for Canada ends up in landfills. So, her company takes surplus food from across the supply chain before it ends up in landfills, then delivers it to organizations like Frontlines, one of its partners.

“For Frontline’s Harvest Kitchen, what’s really important and what is often missing from people’s diet because it’s expensive is protein and produce. And people don’t often purchase that food because it goes bad faster and it’s expensive,” Nikkel explained.

“So, we really supplement a huge amount of protein, produce and dairy — all the healthy food that people have the hardest time accessing when they’re low income.”

Every Thursday, Frontlines uses produce from Second Harvest to prepare home-cooked meals and grocery bags for Weston families. In the future, Lett-Frederick says she wants to bring the Culinary Arts Program model to other parts of Toronto and even across Canada.

“When you do this work, you can think of: If I could just help one person. That’s how I’ve always kind of led my career,” she explained. “To see the young people grow and thrive in this program has really been impactful for me. Also, too, it’s a good thing when sometimes I want a good meal, I could always run to the kitchen.”

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