Finding ways to engage at-risk youths has long been a goal of all kinds of youth development programs, however there is one type of program which has really come to the fore over recent years. Cooking programs aimed at at-risk youths have been taking off in a big way, not only in the USA but in Canada and the UK too.

Programs like the Food Gathers Community Kitchen Job Training Program in Michigan and the Farm & Kitchen Foundation in California have seen impressive results among the young people who have passed through their projects since their foundation a few years ago.
So, why are cooking programs so effectively in engaging with at-risk youths?

How Can Cooking Help?

Although cooking programs for at-risk youths are, on the surface, all about food preparation, there is a lot more at the heart of these projects than simply learning how to prepare a meal. Those who have designed and who implement these programs say that, while discovering more about food and nutrition is part of the benefits, there are many more advantages for the young people who take part than discovering how to use kitchen tools and equipment with big labels and how to combine popular ingredients.

Those who are responsible for culinary programs believe that hands-on programs such as cooking are a golden ticket for the at-risk youth population. Not only are cooking classes teaching key life skills which will set the young people in good stead for their future well-being, but they also build up self-esteem and self-confidence – something which is often sadly lacking among this population. By allowing class participants to take the lead for themselves and to control their own experience, they learn something about their own self-worth and their own abilities – something which may have been missing in their lives before.

Learning The Basics

While the main message of culinary youth development programs is one of self-esteem, confidence and positivity, there is certainly something to be said for the nutritional message that these classes also convey.

Many young people at risk live in dysfunctional families where preparing nutritious meals and learning about healthy food is a low priority. Cooking skills are almost completely absent among many such families, and this breeds an ongoing climate of unhealthy attitudes and lack of key skills from generation to generation.

When young people attend a culinary course, they learn the basics of how to provide for themselves and their families. They learn the value of healthy food and the skills they need to put ingredients together to produce healthy and nutritious meals. For young people who have been more used to simply grabbing what they can and living on convenience foods, this represents an enormous life change for the better.

Engaging With The World Of Work

Many culinary programs take place in existing restaurants where chefs have begun to recognize the importance of welcoming disadvantages and at-risk youths into their kitchens. By offering valuable work experience, these in-house programs can teach young people who often come from a culture of non-working and welfare from generation to generation the value of work. By actively involving young people in the running of a busy kitchen, it is possible to empower them and to make them feel as though they are achieving something. The benefits of positive praise cannot be underestimated.

These young people, who have never experienced anything like this before, can feel part of a team and can be an integral part of a workforce. By experiencing, for the first time, other people being reliant on their efforts, and having to depend on others too, it’s possible to engrain the idea that work pays in more ways than one. For young people who come from a culture of welfare, the importance of this is key.

Funding For Ongoing Programs

With so many positive successes, it isn’t surprising that so many organizations around the world are now seizing the opportunity to engage with disenfranchised youths in at-risk communities through a range of valuable culinary programs. With more young people in challenged communities now benefiting from learning how to cook, we’re likely to see many more youth development schemes of this type appearing over the next few years.