FareStart helps disadvantaged people remake their lives through food — transforming homelessness, hunger, and poverty into human potential.
STORY BY MARGOT KAHN
PHOTOS BY AMBER FOUTSThe basement kitchen at FareStart has been busy since early morning. Among towers of Cambros, metal trays, and cutting boards, students and volunteers are moving — grabbing knives off the magnetic strips on the walls to slice bread, unloading sacks of onions for vegetable stock, and slathering banana bread dough onto gigantic baking trays and loading them into industrial ovens. Since 10 a.m., the cook crew has been making cold lunches and hot dinners and packing them into bags and bins. We are the 3:00–6:30 p.m. crew, and we’ll be delivering this good food to shelters all over the city.
FareStart has been making nutritious, flavorful food for people in shelters for twenty-five years as the brainchild of Seattle Chef David Lee who believed that everyone deserves a quality meal. Over time, Chef Lee realized that he might also teach shelter residents an employable skill by bringing them into his kitchen.
In 1992, Lee’s original Common Meals program was rebranded as FareStart with a new focus on job training. In its flagship kitchen and restaurant downtown, and five cafes from Mt. Baker to South Lake Union, FareStart students get hands-on instruction from full-time instructors and weekly guest chefs like Chef Brian Feldeisen of Semiahoo Resort and Jerry Traunfled of Poppy and Lionhead. Nearly 9,000 adults and youth have participated in FareStart’s programs and, collectively, have prepared over 9 million meals for area shelters, respite centers and low income daycare centers and schools since 1992.
Nearby, a young man and a middle-aged woman work together to transfer finished stock into storage containers. “Just 20 more minutes!” one says with a smile. It is also their first day here in the kitchen. The man recently moved to town and learned about FareStart’s volunteer opportunities when he had lunch in the restaurant upstairs. The woman, who grew up in Seattle and has lived here all her life, had dined in the restaurant many times before she thought of volunteering. They look tired and happy in their baseball hats and dirty white aprons.
“We cook basically everything ourselves,” Chef Scotty Iverson tells me. He’s in charge of our group, and he’s also showing me the ropes. Scotty, who’s now employed by FareStart full time, first arrived in this kitchen as a student.
“I was 29 years old and I’d hit rock bottom,” he tells me before our shift begins. “I had to get myself clean. I had to get an email address! I was 29 years old, and I had the life skills of a teenage boy.” When a friend told him about FareStart, he enrolled in the 16-week Adult Culinary Program. After graduating in 2013 he worked in several foodservice jobs before returning as a FareStart instructor this past year.
As we talk, he grabs a clipboard and double-checks his schedule. A longtime volunteer asks if he can take a break, and Scotty says, “Yes! I appreciate you!” Then he turns his attention to the rest of our crew — Adam, Roberto, and James. “How do we look?” he asks. Chef looks specifically at Adam’s speckled apron and says cheerfully, “I think we might need some new duds!”
Adam quickly changes while the rest of us roll stacks of plastic Cambros, loaded with food, and towers of plastic bins, bursting with bread, into the freight elevator. In the alley, a van awaits. A light drizzle picks up as Adam, Roberto, and James jump in the back. Chef tells me to take shotgun, and he gets behind the wheel. Our first stop is 1811 Eastlake, a supportive housing project, set up by the city’s Department of Emergency Service Center (DESC), to serve homeless adults with chronic alcohol addiction.
We’re barely through the door, wheeling a stack of Cambros down a quiet hall to the lounge, when the first person steps out from a doorway to ask, “What’s for dinner?”
“Barbecue pork!” Chef Scotty says. He’s a slim guy, 30-something, upbeat and efficient, with tattoos on his arms, and quick, kind eyes.
We’re holding doors for each other, signing paperwork, checking the temperatures of all our trays on delivery, and grabbing the empty Cambros from last week to load back in the van. A thin, older gentleman dressed in a forest-green bathrobe and slippers shuffles into the lounge and catches my eye.
“What’s for dinner?” he asks.
“Barbecue pork sandwiches, coleslaw, and cauliflower,” I say.
“Oh, we love barbecue pork!” he replies.
“Who doesn’t?” I say, and we both smile.
Also known as a “wet house,” 1811 has been a somewhat controversial residence from its start in 2005. Its occupants are allowed to continue consuming alcohol, with the agreement that they work to reduce their consumption and move toward a more stable life. It was the first shelter of its kind in the country. Now, other cities across the country are using 1811 as a prototype for the approach of “housing first” — getting people off the street first and then helping them stabilize their lives.
We have brought 75 dinners for the 1811 residents, and another crew will be back at the same time tomorrow. With last week’s empty Cambros in hand, we head back to the van and take off for our next stop, Kerner-Scott House, otherwise known as KS, a quiet shelter for individuals with mental illness. The residents we see are talking in pairs or watching TV. We deliver 22 meals, and we’re off again.
At Connections, a daytime service center that provides individualized support, basic skills training, and referral services to homeless adults, we deliver sack lunches for the next day. Ham and swiss sandwiches — PB&J for a vegetarian option — applesauce cups, and pasta made from scratch.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different kitchens, and I’ve eaten a lot of different food in a lot of different shelters,” Adam says when Chef finishes detailing the contents of the bags for me. Adam has been homeless — “urban camping,” as he calls it — and now he’s in the Adult Culinary Program, the same program that got Chef Scotty off the streets. “This is good food. I think being able to put out a product that you’re proud of is a good thing.”
“What I love about FareStart is that everybody has the same vision and the same passion,” says Chef Scotty, who was eager to return to the FareStart kitchen when the instructor job opened up. “And that’s not something that you find everywhere. It’s like they took all the nicest people in Seattle and put them in one place.”“If I’d known about FareStart, I would have done this program a long time ago,” says Roberto. “They treat you with so much respect. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s remarkable. I’m just grateful.” Roberto shakes his head, laces his fingers together, and blinks before he repeats, “I’m just grateful.”
James is quiet. He’s just gotten out of a long stint in jail. This program, and the job placement it will likely bring at the end of the 16 weeks, is crucial for his readjustment to civilian life.
By 5 p.m., we’ve arrived at our last stop, DESC. We unload Cambros from the van and take the elevator up to the kitchen. Here we set the hot metal trays out in assembly-line fashion, put on latex gloves, and choose our places. Roberto takes bread. Adam takes buns. James scoops coleslaw. And I’m on pork. I stand at the ready, waiting for the dinner announcement to be made.
“How are you feeling?” Adam asks, but I don’t have time to respond. The line has already formed, and the first tray is coming at me. We pass them along, filling each compartment with food, until a complete meal is assembled and passed over the counter to one of the DESC staff, who hands the trays to the residents. In the space of 20 minutes, we serve 100 dinners.
“Thank you,” says a woman in a red sweater.
“Thank you,” says an older man in a scarf and hat.
“Thank you,” says a young man with a three-day stubble.
“The humanity in that place,” says Chef Scotty, “is greater than most places, most places where you’re supposed to find the really gracious, well-mannered people.” He says this when we are back in the van, driving through the rainy, dark evening to the bright basement kitchen of FareStart. There, we will unload one more time, and the students will log their hours, and I will toss my splattered apron in the laundry bin.
Roberto disappears into the night. James puts in his headphones and heads for the bus stop. And I go home to a warm house and dinner waiting for me. I feel full, though I’ve eaten nothing.
To volunteer at FareStart visit them at www.farestart.org
700 Virginia St.
Lunch M-F 11am-2pm
Guest Chef Night THUR 5:30-8pm
Margot Kahn is co-editor of the collection This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home.