A Community of Cooks

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The dusty kitchen had been sitting empty for almost ten years. Its electricity was outdated, none of the appliances worked, and there was not a pot or pan to be found in the cupboards. But when Jo DiFulvio laid eyes on the old Nichols Elementary School kitchen, all she saw was possibility.

Her vision of what this space could one day become was underscored by her experience owning and running her own café before she worked for Catholic Charities of Tompkins/ Tioga Counties (CCTT). Even back then, before she decided to dedicate her life to community programs, Jo often hosted community fundraisers and hired people from supportive employment programs. “I spent the first half of my life in the restaurant industry,” Jo explains. “People would come to me and ask if I would hire someone who needed experience and I would always say ‘of course.’ I love restaurants. That’s where I got my first job and found my own rhythm.”

So when Jo started as the Director of Program Management at the Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga Counties, it seemed almost written in the stars that she would wind up wandering into a dilapidated kitchen, dreaming of chopping knives and wafting garlic. She wanted to convert the old elementary school kitchen into the Nichols Life Skills Café and Community Kitchen, a place where community members could gather to make food together at no cost.

But the process was slow, mostly due to one major hurdle: she didn’t have the funds to make the kitchen operational. Then one day Jo learned of Care Compass Network’s (CCN) Innovation Fund Program where organizations could submit proposals during the yearly application period. When they first applied, Jo knew there was a good chance they wouldn’t win. At best, she thought CCTT might be awarded a small portion of what they had requested. “We thought, alright, we’ll go for it and even if we only get a piece of it, it will help in the process of moving this along,” Jo says.

But to her shock, not only did Catholic Charities win the grant, CCN gave them every cent they requested: over $140,000. “This never would have happened without Care Compass Network. Truly,” Jo says, rather emotionally. “They have been an amazing blessing for us getting up and going,”

Using the grant funding from CCN’s Innovation Fund Program, Jo and her team got to work. They brought in an electrician, replaced the equipment, and–most importantly–hired a chef to run the kitchen. Their vision was to make this space more than just the typical soup kitchen or food pantry. “We wanted to get away from the traditional model where we cook for you. Instead, we wanted to bring the community in and let them take the lead in the meals. Our whole goal is to take away the stigma that goes with having to utilize services and make it more integrative and friendly to use,” Jo says. To do this, they created a model where they would allow individual community members, local businesses, and organizations to cook and serve meals to the rest of the community. This would be a space where people could come to get a hot meal, build relationships, and learn valuable cooking skills they could take home or even use to get a job in the food industry.

Not long after being awarded the grant, the pandemic swept through New York, shutting down all places of gathering. This forced CCTT to quickly pivot to a grab-n-go model, putting Jo’s dreams of a shared cooking space on hold. Even though her full vision wasn’t yet actualized, the opening of the Nichols Community Kitchen couldn’t have been more timely. Even before the pandemic, Nichols, NY was already considered a food desert by the USDA, with the closest grocery store ten miles away in Waverly. The USDA designation of a food desert is contingent on two factors: 1) Availability to nutritionally adequate and safe foods and 2) The ability to acquire food in socially acceptable ways. Prior to the pandemic, Tioga County already had a 20.6% food insecurity rate for children. During the pandemic, the access to fresh, healthy foods was worse than before, causing food insecurity to increase by more that 200%. This meant that people without transportation were relying on the nearby dollar store and gas station for less nutritious and frozen meals.

To combat this, CCTT partnered with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier to stock their food pantry, the Owego Rotary to build raised bed gardens, and the Cornell Cooperative to teach community members about nutrition. Local farmers donate fresh produce for the meals and extras are laid out on the share table that people have access to 24/7. “The farmers have been phenomenal,” Jo says. “In the summers, they give us whole trucks of fruits and vegetables. One farmer even donates hundreds of pounds of fresh mozzarella all year long. It’s stunning how they have stepped up.”

Now, as social distancing rules are starting to relax, the Nichols Life Skills Café and Community Kitchen is finally becoming what Jo had always dreamed of. Stefani Kiefer, the chef and Community Kitchen Supervisor, now teaches six-week courses as part of a kitchen training program. Her participants include both students from the local schools as well as adult members of the community–most of whom start off with very limited cooking skills. “Often times, they’ll come to me not knowing how to measure, read a recipe, or even follow instructions to cook a meal in the microwave,” Stefani says. Under her guidance, the trainees set short and long term goals related to cooking and employment. Throughout the program, they learn skills such as food safety, customer service, nutrition, financial literacy, and work readiness. Stefani’s goal is for them to leave with a mastery of both hard and soft skills they can take into their own kitchen and then hopefully one day use to get jobs in the restaurant and food industry. People looking for help with employment opportunities can go down the hall to the Catholic Charities Boutique where they can find free clothing or walk a bit further to the career services office to get help finding jobs and preparing for interviews.

Since many of the people Stefani works with are from the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), or local special education classes, together they have had to overcome some unique challenges in the kitchen. “One of my favorite success stories is a student who had sensory processing issues and didn’t want to touch the wet ingredients,” Stefani says. “When I first explained that he would be kneading the dough with his hands, he was very grossed out by this. I told him we could do it another way, but the results might not be as good. He was very determined and said no, that he wanted the best results.” Through Stefani’s patience and guidance, the student was eventually able to knead the dough with his hands as the recipe called for. “And honestly, his cookies turned out the best that day,” Stefani says proudly.

Patrick Aquilio, the Tioga Outreach Coordinator for Catholic Charities is especially excited about the opportunities their one-stop-shop provides for students in local special education classes. Each week, these students work in the community kitchen, at the boutique, or in the food pantry. “This gives students who otherwise might not have the chance to gain job experience the ability to learn how to greet customers, help people find items they’re looking for, fold clothing, stock shelves, unload trucks, cook, and clean. These are skills they don’t learn in the classroom that they can take to a job interview at a restaurant, clothing store, or supermarket,” Patrick says.

In addition to training younger students, Stefani also works with adults from the community. One graduate of her course from the OPWDD, a 61-year-old man named from Owego, has continued to come to the Nichols Life Skills Café and Community Kitchen every week, even after completing the program. He uses the skills he learned in Stefani’s class to not only help with meal distribution and clean up at the Nichols location, but also in his work at a nearby diner called Becky’s. “I enjoy working with Stefanie,” he says. “I liked the class and wanted to work to the best of my ability. And I did.” Stefani says that his help has been invaluable.

Each week, Tuesday through Friday, with the help of her trainees and volunteers, Stefani plans, cooks, and distributes anywhere from 140-200 meals, made entirely from ingredients found in their food pantry, their gardens, and from donations. “Many of the people who come here tell us these are the only hot, fresh meals they eat all week,” Jo says. “When we started this project, we had no idea what the need was going to be out here in Nichols. But we could never have imagined how many meals we would serve.” At the time of writing, they have served over 7,000 meals and counting. Each meal comes with a recipe card containing only ingredients that can be found in the food pantry, allowing community members to replicate the meals at home. Most recently, the Owego Rotary used the kitchen on April 26th to prepare lasagna, fresh salad, and Italian bread, free of charge for the community. You can check out Nichols Life Skills Café and Community Kitchen and watch the Owego Rotary in action on Catholic Charities Tompkins/Tioga’s Facebook Live.

Today, Jo is proud of what the once-inoperable kitchen has become as a result of the hard work and support of CCTT, Care Compass Network, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Owego Rotary, and Cornell Cooperative. But her dreams are far from over. “The ultimate goal is to have a food truck,” Jo says. “That would allow us to bring in revenue and sustain ourselves while offering community members all kinds of cool opportunities.” With this model, trainees like the man from Owego would be able to gain employment, learn entrepreneurial skills, and provide a much-needed service to the community. The food truck is just the next stop in CCTT’s mission to end food insecurity in the Southern Tier.

 

Written by Sarah A. Bull

 

 
 
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