This Cookery School for Former Foster Care Kids Teaches More Than Just Kitchen Skills

Every year, 11,000 teenagers leave foster care in Britain. Kitchen Kick Start aims to teach them basic cooking and food budgeting techniques—two vital skills for independent living.
November 19, 2018, 3:09pm
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“He probably hasn’t had a massively fantastic life.”

Jocelyn Read is cutting a Tesco own-brand chicken into pieces, ready to make a homemade fried chicken dish. Twenty-year-old Chanel, who is watching intently, smiles.

“Are we really sat here talking about the livelihood of a dead chicken?” she jokes. “Come on, it’s OK, the chicken died, the chicken got sold at wholesale, it’s all good. I’m sure its brothers and sisters were on the shelf with him!”

Read and Chanel are in the community kitchen at Brighton Youth Centre, along with 16-year-old Elle. The sky outside is concrete grey but inside, things are much more colourful. There’s a vibrant bowl of coleslaw, made with carrots, beetroot, and yogurt; bright orange sweet potato wedges that Chanel has been diligently chopping; and a tray of overdone pink and blue macaroons that Elle is only slightly disappointed by. The chicken is about to be dipped in flour, followed by surplus egg yolks from the macaroon recipe, and a mix of breadcrumbs, stock cubes, and—Elle’s favourite—garlic granules.

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Brighton Youth Centre, one of the community kitchens in which Kitchen Kick Start sessions are held. All photos by the author.

Read is a cookery trainer for Kitchen Kick Start, a scheme that teaches small groups of care leavers how to prepare tasty and simply meals at home. Set up in 2016 by national food policy charity Food Matters, the programme is currently supported by the Big Lottery Fund, with sessions held in community centre kitchens and hostels across the South East. According to director Victoria Williams, “Kitchen Kick Start aims to help young people feel good about cooking meals that make them feel healthy and happy.”

“Care leaver” refers to any of the 11,000 looked-after 16 to 18-year-olds who, each year, leave foster care, residential care, or other arrangements outside their immediate or extended family. Care leavers’ prospects aren’t great: only 6 percent go to university, a third will become homeless within two years, and they are five times more likely than their peers to come into contact with the criminal justice system. Poverty has a huge influence on these outcomes.

While food might seem the last of care leavers’ problems, with consensus being those on low incomes are at higher risk of suffering from food poverty, which in turn affects health outcomes, food could be one of many necessary solutions.

Elle tells me that Kitchen Kick Start helps her to “have more ideas so I’m not eating the same stuff.”

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Ingredients for Chanel and Elle's cooking lesson with instructor Jocelyn Read.

Before Elle’s social worker recommended she begin attending the cookery sessions, she lived in accommodation without an oven or microwave, and relied on “takeaway, a lot of pasta, and chips.” As for her ten-month-old daughter, “I had to give her pouches, and I don’t like her eating them. I prefer her eating proper food that I’ve cooked, so that when she’s bigger she’s not fussy.”

A charity donation of an oven and a gifted microwave means Elle no longer has to sterilise baby bottles with tablets, and can make tastier food for her and her daughter.

“I made savoury flapjacks and she demolished half a tray to herself,” she beams, adding: I know how to cook a full chicken now, which I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do before. I’m happy serving that to my child without thinking I’m gonna poison her!”

She continues: “I’m literally in charge of everything that goes on the plate for me and my daughter now, so it’s better now I’m here. I’m making curries, homemade Pot Noodles, and my own puddings and it’s all healthier.”

Elle credits Kitchen Kick Start with a post-pregnancy weight loss that has boosted her self-esteem. Plus, for the two hours every Tuesday she joins Read at the community centre, she gets to live in her own childhood again.

“I’m literally in charge of everything that goes on the plate for me and my daughter now. I’m making curries, homemade Pot Noodles, and my own puddings.”

“My daughter’s been quite poorly for two months and it gets stressful when you’re sitting in hospital for hours on end,” Elle says. “So, not in a horrible way, but it is nice to be able to come out and not worry. I do still think about her, but this is my own time to unwind.”

Cooking is a vital skill, she adds, because “You never know what’s going to happen in the future, and you need to know how to look after yourself.”

Having left care aged 14, Chanel has long been looking after herself but hasn’t always had a place to cook. She has stayed with friends’ families but didn’t feel she could use their kitchens, or in hostels, where she shared with up to eight other people and the ovens “were awful and filthy and not hygienic and I didn’t feel comfortable cooking in a place I knew I didn’t clean every day.”

Plus, there was a security issue: “In a hostel, you’ve got to sit in your kitchen for the full two hours while you’re cooking. If you leave your food, the chances are, you’re gonna come back and the oven will be turned off and food will be thrown around.”

Chips, Chinese food, and “disgusting sandwiches that have been sat there for a week in the fridge” of a convenience shop, to be bought “whenever I had some change in my pocket” once were Chanel’s staples, because “I used to go through dips of neglect in self care.”

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Chopping red cabbage for the coleslaw side.

For the past three years, Chanel has been living, occasionally with her boyfriend, in a privately rented flat. The kitchen is “temperamental, if I have a hob on and the oven on it trips my whole flat” but it’s hers: “I’ve got a massive pantry cupboard of tins and spices and garlic and stock and everything that you slowly build up having your own space. I’ll always have the ingredients to throw something together quickly.”

She started attending Kitchen Kick Start when it began two years ago, after some coaxing from her social worker.

“I was skeptical because everyone thinks they know how to cook, and I thought I’d come here and it’d be just simple stuff. But it’s about making full meals that can satisfy you, like a family meal. it’s an all-round experience.”

Chanel now cooks “cottage pie, Cumberland pie, pasta bake things, that you make a big amount of that can last a few days.”

“I make beef casserole in a slow cooker and the beef just falls apart in your mouth, it’s so good,” she adds.

To Chanel, these cookery sessions are more than the food, they’re “a lot about independence.” Both she and Elle feel these sessions should be a statutory part of leaving care.

“It really has helped out, and they fund food education in schools, so why shouldn’t they do it for people outside of schools, who live alone, who never really have the access to education or family support or even a kitchen to cook in?” Chanel says.

Read agrees that cooking education should be available for everyone. “Cooking is a life skill that will help you to be resourceful, to work to a budget,” she says.

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Chicken with coleslaw and sweet potato wedges, cooked by Elle and Chanel.

Williams, director of Food Matters, tells me the aim of Kitchen Kick Start is “to help young people go from being in supported housing or care to feeling like they have the confidence and life skills to be able to take on living as independent adults.” So far, they have helped 60 care leavers to learn about “healthy, sustainable, affordable fair food systems” in this hands-on, fun way. Williams impresses: “It has to motivate them.”

Hence the home-made takeaway grub, the personalisation of meals, and the affordable chicken which Read prepares today because: “I’m not gonna tell somebody that’s cooking on a budget not to buy cheap chicken.”

Next week, at Elle’s request, the girls will be making mince pies.

“I love baking,” she says. “Recently I got my daughter a little metal whisk and a bowl and I let her have it in a high chair when I’m cooking, so that when she’s older, she can get involved.”