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Food

As a Youth Worker, Food Is My Secret Weapon

Everyone has an opinion about food. Everyone has a positive memory, fun story or emotional connection to a particular dish.

by Ciaran Thapar; illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
14 June 2019, 9:00am

“Can anyone name what’s in this photo?” I ask a classroom of year seven students, pointing to an image displayed on the whiteboard behind me. I’m an education mentor at school in central London, and today’s lesson is on identity. The room is silent for a few moments, then a boy in the front row slowly raises his hand.

“Is that a samosa?” he asks, self-consciously glancing around the room. “You’re right,” I reply, “it is a samosa.”

“We actually call it sambusa,” he adds. A few giggles come from the row at the back. I ask him where his family are from, and he says Somalia.

More hands shoot up. Others announce their heritage, and what each of them sees as their own culturally significant, parcel-like snack. “Meat pie,” says a Nigerian boy. A Colombian girl shouts, “Empanada!”. “Cornish pasty,” offers a white British boy, while two Jamaican boys sitting together say, “patty!” For the rest of the lesson, we segue into talking about personal identity and why it should be celebrated.

All youth workers have an armoury of subjects they use to spark conversations with young people. As someone who mostly mentors teenage boys, my knowledge of music, especially London rap and drill, is particularly effective. When things get a bit more serious, I also use philosophy.

The easiest win of all, though, is food. Everyone has an opinion about food. Everyone has a positive memory, fun story or emotional connection to a particular dish or ingredient. Much has been written about food as a connecting force between people of different backgrounds, but this gets magnified when you’re dealing with young people who find it difficult to open up about their problems.

This kind of thinking drove the recent knife-free campaign at popular south London chicken shop Morley’s, which saw stories from young people who have chosen to stop carrying a knife printed on chicken and burger boxes. Food, especially the dishes and brands that hold cultural significance, can be an unparalleled medium through which to engage young people.

“Youth work is a tradition of informal education, which means that young people and youth workers learn together through dialogue, relationship and shared activity,” Dr Tania de St Croix, a youth work academic at King’s College, London, tells me. “In my research for the book Grassroots Youth Work, where I interviewed youth workers and visited youth clubs and street-based projects, food played a central role in creating welcoming spaces and building relationships.”

She adds: “Youth workers are skilled communicators. They might use food chat as a way to build peer relationships, create rapport with an individual or a group, or introduce humour.”

I recently spent a day working with a group of year eight boys at a state school in south London. The task was to come up with an idea for a social enterprise that would benefit their local community. After nudging the two more focused members of the group towards the idea of throwing a profit-making community barbecue to feed the homeless, the two other boys, whose English levels were clearly of poorer standard, began trying to derail the progress made by throwing their pens at one another.

I asked them if they like food. They both said yes. I asked about their heritage. One of them said his family was from Afghanistan, so I took a risk and asked if he liked chapli kebabs, the beef patty dish popular in northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan. It paid off, because he nodded excitedly. “How do you know this?” he asked, wide-eyed.

The other boy said he was from Nigeria. I told him I was a fan of beef suya, the spicy meat skewers, and he smiled. Suddenly, I had their ears, and a window of opportunity for aligning their interests with the aims of the workshop. I suggested they be in charge of preparing their respective dishes at our imaginary community barbecue. What ingredients would they need? How much would they charge? They nodded, energised, and grabbed their pens. Within twenty minutes, the group had presented their social enterprise idea to the rest of the class.

“Sometimes, youth workers can move the discussion on to wider issues such as culture, fairness, food poverty, the environment, animal rights or colonialism,” continues de St Croix. “It is usually most effective if this kind of discussion is improvised on the spot rather than rehearsed – it is ideal to keep the conversation light so it does not feel contrived, but also to challenge young people.”

Isabel Rice, a dietitian on the health and wellbeing team at youth homelessness charity Centrepoint agrees that food can open up important conversations, but also notes its function on a more basic level.

“If you’re not eating properly, you can’t do anything else. You can’t apply for a job, or succeed in your degree,” she says.

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The Food Point, a shop set up by youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, aimed at helping homeless young people purchase food in a safe environment. Photo courtesy Centrepoint.

Centrepoint supports 16 to 25-year-old homeless people and has found that 60 percent regularly skip meals due to lack of money. To help combat this, it came up with The Food Point, a shop currently being piloted at one of its 80-bed sites that sells food to homeless young people at discounted prices, as well as offering nutrition and recipe tips. Rice says that meaningful discussion about food – and other topics – often comes up here.

“We find quite a lot in the shop environment, because the food becomes a distraction, it helps people to relax,” she says. “They tend to open up more. There is something that is in the middle, between you, in conversation. Then it can be easier to have conversations about their mental health or anxieties, or for them to open up about not having ever been shopping in a supermarket before because they are worried about not knowing what to buy, or that the security guards will follow them around.”

“If you’re not eating properly, you can’t do anything else. You can’t apply for a job, or succeed in your degree.”

Another way of using food to deliver youth work is simply by eating it. I used to run a discussion group at a community centre in Brixton, south London. During one session, we placed a huge map of London on the wall and quizzed the boys on what they thought about different parts of the capital. It became obvious they felt most intimidated by the idea of going to a plush neighbourhood like Chelsea. So, after a trip to central London for a tour of the Houses of Parliament a few weeks later, we caught cabs to Sloane Square and ate overpriced English breakfasts.

On another trip, we walked a few hundred metres up the road from the community centre to Brixton Village, a covered market filled with new restaurants and bars. None of the boys had ever eaten there, despite it being so close to their homes. We dined first at a Thai restaurant, and the following month at the sourdough pizza chain Franco Manca (one boy was outraged that the latter didn’t do pizzas with a barbecue sauce base.) Both meals gave us the chance to have a relaxed discussion about local geography and gentrification, as well as a break from the mundane patterns of daily life that many boys can get caught up in when living on neglected social housing estates – patterns that can lead to more extreme disaffection if left unbroken.

I recently attended a panel event in Parliament about nationwide cuts to youth service budgets and invited two young men, 17 and 19, who I’ve mentored for several years to come along with me. Afterwards, we took the tube down to Tooting, one of the best areas for Indian and Sri Lankan food in south London.

Both of my mentees are Jamaican. They like their food spicy, and their meat on the bone. Partially to satisfy their inevitably large adolescent appetites, and partially so I could introduce them to my personal passion for the wonders of a Punjabi-style tandoori mixed grill, we went to Dawat, a bustling Pakistani canteen on Upper Tooting road. Lamb chops and tikka wings came and the boys broadcast videos of the sizzling hot plate on Snapchat. Naans and curries followed. We talked through the event at Parliament, but also discussed South Asia, its continuum of culinary variances, and how these things fit into my personal identity and experiences growing up in an Anglo-Indian household.

When we finished with gulab jamuns and malai kulfi, both said they would never be able to go back to a standard curry house.