VIDEO: How disaster can feed inspiration (the Shore Soup story)

Back in October, Idealist video producer Liz Morrison blogged about the Shore Soup Project, a new nonprofit in Queens, New York.

Right after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Robyn Hillman-­Harrigan made the simple decision to begin cooking hot meals for her Rockaway neighbors who had no heat, no electricity, or no homes. That first step started a life-changing journey that combines her passions for healthy food and community building.

In the year since, Robyn has established the project as a nonprofit and become its executive director. Shore Soup continues to cook and deliver healthy food to home-bound neighbors, but its scope has grown to include restoring a community garden, building an urban farm, hosting workshops on nutrition, opening a summer food truck, and planning a restaurant-slash-community center to provide healthy pay-­as­-you­-can meals for residents and visitors alike, no matter how much is in their wallets.

Watch Robyn’s personal and powerful story in her own words, and get inspired to start taking action on something you care about. As Robyn says, “It’s cliche to say every journey begins with a single step, but it’s true. You never know where it will take you.”

Robyn’s story is just one of countless examples of people in the Idealist community taking small steps that make a big difference. Do you have a “small steps” story to share? Email it to

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Mmm, delicious community! New supper club models pair food with camaraderie

This week’s spotlight: all things food.


Food is love.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Do you hunger for a deeper connection to new cultures when you travel?

Do you thirst for closer friendships with your neighbors?

Does the thought of eating home-cooked meals away from home make your mouth water?

If so, join the (supper) club!

We may not have full agreement on what to call this trend yet—I’ve come across “meal-sharing platform,” “collaborative gastronomy,” “community-based alternative dining,” and “the social food movement”—but a rose (or rosé) by any other name is still all about eating and drinking with strangers near and far to gain broader cultural understanding, make new friends, and, of course, savor delicious meals.

Here’s how some pioneers are doing it:

Meals with a side of cultural exchange

  • Cookening‘s motto is “Connecting people and cultures through food.” Sign up on their site to attend or host home-cooked meals and meet people from all over the world. Hosts post information about themselves and sample menus they might cook, then state their desired “contribution.” Guests peruse the host profiles (searchable by location, type of meal, languages spoken, maximum number of guests, and more) and send a booking request when they see something they like.

Home cooking

  • Adentro Dinner Club in Argentina is a bit different: a Buenos Aires couple opens their home to travelers every Wednesday night for a traditional asado (Argentine barbecue) for about US$60 per person.
  • An Italian counterpart, Home Food, began in 2004 in conjunction with The Association for the Guardianship and Exploitation of the Traditional Culinary-Gastronomic Heritage of Italy (talk about a mouthful). Guests join the association for €50 and can then sign up for various experiences (“Not only food,” explains the website, “but tradition, territory, love”).
  • And Brooklyn, New York’s “part-time restaurant” Neighbor uses the tagline “What we eat in our house” and serves on the last Saturday of every month. A four-course dinner with drinks is $85, and attendance is capped at eight people, first-RSVP, first-served.

Food party!

  • Still other variations on the theme include NYC’s The Ghetto Gourmet, which organized roughly 400 “underground dinner parties” from 2003 to 2008 and lives on today as “a portal into the world of underground restaurants, speakeasies, supperclubs and other community-based alternatives for dining and entertainment.” On the site, you can start or join a “foodie group,” plan your get-togethers, and post menus and photos from your meals.
  • Chaos Cooking organizes events across the U.S. and promotes ultimate collaboration, describing their model as: “Everyone brings the ingredients to make of dish of their choice. Everyone cooks together and then helps restore the space to its original condition.”
  • UK-based Find a Supper Club offers a hub where visitors can “discover where and when your local underground restaurant/pop up/supper club is!”, both in Europe and elsewhere.

Learn how to find great “closed-door restaurants” and get acquainted with new foods and people while traveling, or get inspired with tips to start your own right at home.

No matter how you slice it, supper clubs’ resurging popularity is testament to our deep desire for community, conversation, and sharing. And food. Definitely food.

Tell us how an alternative dining experience has been a positive influence on you or in your community.

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Breaking new ground: How a Kansas City organization is helping refugees put down roots

This week’s spotlight: all things food.


Khadijo Yussuf, a graduate of New Roots, broke ground at her own farm site this past spring.
(photo courtesy New Roots Facebook)

Now that they’ve harvested the last of the tomatoes, the farmers at New Roots are spending the winter cultivating some of their other skills: driving, English, and small business management.

New Roots—a partnership between the food justice organization Cultivate KC and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas—provides refugees in Kansas City the space and resources they need to gain income and self-sufficiency for their families through farming.

Many refugees who come to the U.S. already have extensive agricultural experience, but lack the resources and language skills needed to set up their own farms.

New Roots runs a four-year program with 16 refugee families who are each given a quarter-acre of land to grow their choice of crops. They’re also given access to seeds, equipment, and other important resources like English language classes, help setting up bank accounts, and driving lessons.

Rachel Pollock, program coordinator for New Roots, says that six of their graduates have gone on to buy property and start their own farms.

One of her favorite success stories is that of Khadijo, a Somali woman who was relocated to the U.S. a few years ago. Women are especially well-suited for the program, Rachel says, because they’re used to working hard to provide for their kids.

After four years in the New Roots program, Khadijo now drives her own van to the market to sell the food she’s grown. A mother of six, she’s recently purchased a home with a vacant lot where she’s planted vegetables and fruit trees.

“She loves being able to raise her kids in the garden,” says Rachel.

While the learning curve is steep for refugees like Khadijo, they’re not the only ones who learn from New Roots.

“When our farmers sell their vegetables at the markets, it gives families here in Kansas City the opportunity to interact with people that they might never interact with otherwise—we get to bridge cultures both ways.”

The best part about working with refugee farmers, says Rachel, is the chance to offer homes and security to people who have felt unsettled for years.

“Being able to grow your own food is so important—especially for people who haven’t felt safe or felt self-determination over their lives in a really long time,” says Rachel. “Food is so tied into feeling like we’re home.”

Interested in refugee issues? Search Idealist for over 2,000 opportunities around the globe.

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Food justice leader Nikki Henderson on talking about food, health, and race

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

Nikki Henderson—Executive Director of People’s Grocery in Oakland, which supports community-driven solutions to food insecurity—was raised by health-conscious community activists in a household with seven older foster brothers. Her whole life has been shaped by the marriage of social justice and healthy eating.

“I can’t detangle them. I’ve never been able to detangle them,” she says. “It lives very presently because Trayvon Martin was going to the liquor store to get Skittles and iced tea. That’s what he was doing when he was out late at night. That’s what many of our kids do.”


Her advice to people interested in getting involved in food justice in their community?

Be a translator who can reach out to people different from you. Don’t be afraid to start conversations about the messy overlap between health, poverty, power, and race.

“If you have the opportunity to be a bridge, be a bridge.”

Watch the video for how to do just that.

Tell us about a time you were a bridge in conversation about a charged issue.

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Try this! Open a “pay-what-you-can” café and nourish your neighbors

This week’s spotlight: all things food.


One Acre Cafe is just weeks away from their grand opening.
(photo via OAC Facebook)

When Jan Orchard read stories to her first-grade students, they seemed fidgety—even for seven-year-olds. On mornings when she brought in blueberry muffins, though, they paid much more attention to her.

“They were hungry,” she says.

That’s when she started to understand just how much food insecurity was affecting her community in Johnson City, Tennessee—and decided to do something about it. Last year, she quit her teaching job to open One Acre Café, a “pay what you can” restaurant that’s just a few weeks away from turning on its ovens.

For Jan, the most exciting part about One Acre Café is how the community has come together over the past year to help open its doors. Its existence is owed to the culmination of over 1,000 volunteer hours and $80,000 worth of donated equipment, building materials, and labor.

“Someone donated a $15,000 granite countertop, the plumbing company donated a toilet, a tile company donated all the tile for the bathrooms, and a furniture company donated couches for our lounge,” she says.

Even though all these donations are going towards a charitable café, it’s not going to be a “free” restaurant.

“The idea behind the café is that everyone can contribute something. People are asked to invest in a resource for their community in exchange for their time, and for that, they’ll be fed,” she says.

Payment for a meal comes in the form either of a cash donation ($4, $6, or $8 depending on portion size) or as one hour of volunteer time doing something like rolling silverware, serving food, or greeting patrons.

Beyond being a great place to go and eat, Jan dreams of making One Acre Café a gathering place in the community where people can have interesting conversations and connect with one another.

“What happens when people lose their jobs is that they get deeper and deeper in debt and they become ashamed to go out into the community,” she says. “The idea behind the café is that there should be a neighborhood place where everyone is welcome to come and enjoy a nice meal and have a good conversation without feeling uncomfortable or ashamed about whether or not they have a lot of money.”

How you can replicate it

1. Use a model


The site of One Acre Café is a former bar and vacant building in downtown Johnson City which has been a real “fixer-upper.”
(photo via OAC Facebook)

Early in the planning stages for One Acre Café, Jan reached out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation (OWEE), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting food insecurity by helping people start pay-what-you-can restaurants.

They offer best practices, mentorship, and “start-up” kits (basically a ‘paint by numbers’ on how to start a community restaurant) to people who are interested in starting one in their community.

2. Ask other community restaurants for advice

Part of the OWEE model is that once you’re up and running, you should be there to mentor other people who also want to start a community restaurant. One Acre Café had a lot of guidance from the F.A.R.M. Café in Boone, Tennessee.

“What makes these cafés different from other restaurants is that they’re not in competition with one another, they’re trying to help one another,” Jan says.

3. Follow up with people who offer help

Jan’s benefited greatly from believing that when people want to help out, you should let them.

A year ago when she was first getting started, she held a community meeting and silent auction to help get the word out about her plans. At the meeting, she put out some volunteer forms.

Jan was able to grow OAC’s strong volunteer base by calling up everybody who filled out a form.

One of their volunteers, a construction worker named Ernest, has put in a lot of time helping with renovations and monitoring construction permits. But you can tell he’s getting excited about opening day because he has more on his mind than the construction projects. He stopped Jan a few weeks ago with an important question:

“A bunch of the guys here wanted me to make sure you were gonna serve some nice hearty soups and stews with good bread.”

Jan assured him, yes, they’d make sure to have some on the menu.

Are you interested in setting up a community restaurant in your area? Reach out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation at

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Realism over reverence: A loveable soil nerd’s advice for sustainable activism

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo via Facebook)

James Cassidy, a soil sciences instructor and faculty advisor to one of the longest-running organic student farms in the country, comes into his office at Oregon State University wearing a t-shirt that says “eat locals.” It shows a zombie chasing a guy on a tractor.

I’m here today to talk with James about food, sustainability, and the little things we can all do to make a difference in our food system. Now that there are so many different food organizations, sustainable farming projects, and trendy restaurants, the myriad of all things we “should” do when it comes to food can be overwhelming.

“A lot of people think you’re supposed to convert to sustainability like you have to join this religion or something,” James says. “But the creation of real lasting change isn’t about going full blast, it’s about doing little things over a long period of time. That’s what sustainability really means—an action that is possible for you to sustain for a long time.”

Doing small, reasonable acts to participate in sustainable food systems—like eating a little less meat than you might normally, or buying vegetables at a farmer’s market once a month—might not seem like much. But if enough people did these little things, it would make a big difference.

“If we could snap our fingers and get everybody to eat 5% less meat and 2% more whole grains, we could change the entire agricultural system overnight.”

It’s maybe not as sexy as becoming a full-blown urban homesteader with chickens and pickles and homemade soap, but that’s the point.

"Eat food, not rocks," says James.

“Eat food, not rocks.” (Photo via Facebook)

“Look, change is slow. And it’s not very dramatic or exciting. So you have to build activism into your life in a reasonable way,” he says. “The activism itself has to be sustainable.”

Less guilt, more fun

Having a whole bunch of fun helps too, he adds. Especially when it comes to mobilizing volunteers or starting community projects related to sustainability.

“You have to give an incentive for people to be there, not just tell them that they really ‘should.’ You gotta get the BBQ in there, you gotta get some music, you gotta make it actually fun and they’ll actually want to come. Less strict ‘eat your vegetables’ guilt-tripping and more birthday cake.”

Prioritizing reality over reverence has helped Cassidy’s student garden come into its own. In the early stages, he saw a lot of students sitting around having philosophical conversations about communities. It was too grand, too hypothetical. People kept dropping out because they weren’t having fun.

Now kids come out to the garden for a few minutes to pull weeds, have a warm meal together, and then get back to whatever else they want to do. It’s no pressure, and that works better for busy students who are more likely to come by if it’s not a huge commitment—and if they’re getting food out of the deal.

“Look, communities happen, they’re not built. And they happen if there’s a reason for them to happen. So if you can provide some reason or some opportunity for it—for us it was serving dinner to people who come to help—then you give it a chance to form itself.”

I ask him if there’s one thing he would want everybody on the planet to do or think about to help us become more sustainable. The simplicity of his answer surprises me.

“I think that every single person who lives on this planet Earth should put a seed into soil and water it and put it under a light or in the sun at least once a year. If everybody participated in this little tiny ritual, it would remind us how life on our planet actually works—seeds going into a porous media and swelling and growing and becoming something out of nothing. I think if everyone did this, it would actually improve people’s lives and change their perspective. I think it’s really as simple as that.”

If you need some inspiration for having fun and expressing ‘what’s on your mind,’ check out this Information Society video (NOTE: that’s James on the left with the big blue bass).

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Planting the seeds of change: How Veterans to Farmers helps vets turn over a new leaf

This week’s spotlight: all things food.


Veterans to Farmers provides job opportunities for veterans and fresh, locally-produced food for communities.
(photo via

Buck Adams started hiring veterans to work in his greenhouses because it just made so much sense. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a greenhouse is a natural decompression chamber.

“There’s daylight, natural life, no hustle and bustle besides the hum of fans and water flowing so it’s tranquil and peaceful. The natural process of seeing life and nurturing life and growing something that feeds others—I think that helps the brain heal itself,” he says.

A former U.S. Marine Corps Security Forces NCO who’s been around agriculture his whole life—his parents raised chickens on contract for Tyson in Arkansas—Buck describes seeing the effects of the greenhouse on vets as an “a-ha!” moment. He knew he had to share the stability and security he found in sustainable agriculture with others, so he founded the Denver-area nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in 2012. 

The journey to get there was winding. After returning from the service, Buck bounced around for a few years before learning about the growing importance of localized food systems and energy conservation—and how the U.S. lags behind in using new technology to grow food in clean, efficient ways (for example, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)—the method his greenhouses use, wherein plants are grown aeroponically and hydroponically in a highly controlled greenhouse environment, maximizing output and resources while minimizing waste, pests, and diseases).

Buck used this knowledge to found Circle Fresh Farms in 2009, which is now Colorado’s largest hydro-organic greenhouse grower. If you’ve bought organic tomatoes from Whole Foods, there’s a good chance they came from the Circle Fresh network.


Buck Adams in one of his greenhouses.
(photo courtesy of VTF)

To share the opportunities he found in farming with his fellow veterans, Buck made it part of his company’s policy to hire vets in 2011.

VTF grew from this decision; today they work to train vets in horticulture and business management to provide communities with fresh, healthy food and veterans with a chance to gain the skills they need to start or manage greenhouse businesses of their own. At least three graduates of the VTF program have gone on to start (or are in the process of starting) their own farms. 

It’s a perfect match, as there’s a lot of overlap between the skills and training gained in the military and those it takes to monitor a CEA greenhouse.

“The controlled environment runs on highly regimented standard operating procedures which vets are used to,” Buck says. “They’re paying close attention to their work, and their military training overlaps very well with this kind of growing… It’s a natural transition.”

VTF is now working on building a national agricultural and business management training center for vets in downtown Denver. This facility will also serve as the site of a vet-owned farming co-op which will provide fresh, organic vegetables to the surrounding community through CSA memberships.

It might sound simple, but starting his own greenhouse business and nonprofit wasn’t easy, and Buck faces funding challenges as this major commercial project develops in the coming year. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign this Veterans Day to help bring the project to fruition.

Despite the busy year ahead, he keeps at it. He attributes his success to combining good ideas, good timing, and a lot of hard work.

From there, “It’s just grown organically,” he jokes.

In the past, we’ve blogged about an all-volunteer veteran disaster relief organization, a veteran who volunteers with a blind baseball team, and a veteran healing project.

What other organizations, companies, or individuals are working to help veterans readjust to civilian life?

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A shore thing: How soup is rebuilding community in the Rockaways

Robyn hotfood Station 59th St

Robyn set up a hot food station on a street corner a few days after Hurricane Sandy devastated her neighborhood.

Almost exactly a year ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated much of Robyn Hillman-­Harrigan’s Rockaway Beach neighborhood in Queens, New York.

“Nothing was where you expected it to be,” Robyn says. “It felt like our beach town had turned into a war zone over night.”

At that time, Robyn wasn’t thinking about founding a nonprofit and opening a community restaurant. She was thinking about how she could help her neighbors.

On the first day after the storm, she started by bringing batches of hot cocoa, tea, and coffee to the people around her. The next day, she and her friends set up her propane camping stove outside on a makeshift table made from driftwood. They cooked batches of soup and warmed up donated food. A line formed down the block as people came out to eat a hot meal and find comfort in community.

A few days into the disaster, Robyn took a step back and thought about how she could increase her impact beyond that one street corner. She realized she needed better communication, a bigger kitchen, and a system that would help her reach the maximum number of people.

So she formed a Facebook group and asked her network for specific donations. The response was overwhelming. A friend lent space in his restaurant’s kitchen. Another worked with farms upstate to donate produce. A number of people volunteered to help cook and deliver the soup.

Thus, the Rockaway Rescue Alliance Shore Soup Project was born.

Since then, Robyn has centered the project around her two passions—providing access to healthy food options, and building community around food.

So far, the Alliance has founded a community garden, hosted workshops on nutrition, and continued to cook and deliver organic soups to homebound residents. They also recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for a summer food truck that provides healthy pay-­as­-you­-can meals to the residents of the Rockaways, who are still living in a food desert.

They’re now more determined than ever to be a resource in their community for a long time to come. Currently, they’re raising seed capital to open SHORE, a pay-­as­-you­-can restaurant that will double as a community center.

Robyn is excited to move into this next phase, though she knows it will continue to be hard work.

“Throughout this process there’s been a lot of red tape and struggle. And we’ve learned that things change and new needs arise,” she says. “This process requires continuous readjustment and the ability to shift and adapt.”


Robyn delivering meals to the residents of Rockaway, Queens.

Lessons learned

1. Follow your passion and you will find your path.

Robyn has always cared about increasing access to healthy food and community building, and directly after Sandy, she found ways to use her passion to help.

“We just launched right into it. We were so excited and determined,” she says. “We didn’t think about a year from now. We didn’t think about worst case scenarios.”

2. Word of mouth can build momentum and make it real.

In the days following the storm, Robyn realized that people in other parts of the city didn’t know about the devastation in her neighborhood. But she figured that if they did, they would want to help.

That led her to creating a Facebook page, where she posted photos of the devastation and of her efforts to provide warm meals and a feeling of community. And people did pick up on it; just through word of mouth, she was able to get donations and volunteers. It also forced her to name the project, making it more official and sustainable.

3. Talking to people helps you gain wisdom and build a network of supporters.

Before jumping into growing the organization, Robyn took time to talk to people to get their feedback and advice. She started by reaching out to members in her community, then found other organizations who were doing similar work. These informational interviews provided insightful advice and also helped her to build a strong network of supporters.

Along with the residents, these supporters have helped the Shore Soup Project grow from a relief effort into a real, forward-thinking organization—something Robyn never could have imagined before the storm.

“We all have the power and ability to do things. If we choose to harness that power, we can do so much. But if we let our doubts stand in the way, we will never start,” she says. “The storm was the catalyst that helped me overcome those doubts and take the first step.”

The Shore Soup Project is hosting a benefit event to raise seed funds for their SHORE restaurant this Wednesday, October 23, in New York City. If you like delicious food, local booze, and great art for auction, check out their event page on Idealist for ticket details and to RSVP. If you attend, you may be featured in an upcoming Idealist video!

Shore Soup Project is also looking for volunteers to help them cook and deliver soup, as well as to fill a part-time position as their Head Chef and Kitchen Manager

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This food truck is driving change for youth just out of prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.


Jordyn and her sweet food spread. (photo courtesy of Jordyn Lexton)

In her English class at East River Academy one day, a school for incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island, Jordyn Lexton had her students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).”

After the group discussion, one student asked if he could be an architect someday. She told him yes. Another student who had been sleeping throughout the class raised his head and shouted, “Hell no! No disrespect, Miss, but you’re selling dreams.”

In that moment she realized that most of these kids would never actually have a chance to live their dreams—not because they didn’t have the potential, but because the system was broken.

Her students were all 16, 17, and 18 years old, yet charged as adults in the New York state prison system, one of only two states to do so. And even if they were lucky enough to leave East River Academy with a high school diploma or GED, the chances of them ending up back in jail were high—70% would return, in fact. Future employment and further schooling would be also tough due to their felony record.

“Regardless of what I was doing inside the facility, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to literally stop selling dreams and actually create channels for young people to have a successful reentry experience,” Jordyn says.

So she left teaching at the beginning of last year to start working at the Correctional Association of New York on the Raise the Age campaign. She got interested in prison reentry, and afterward, worked at the Center for Employment Opportunities.

An unabashed foodie, Jordyn then had an idea: what if she opened a food truck in NYC and hired her students once they got out of jail? The idea stuck with her. So she started working at Kimchi Taco Truck to learn the ins and outs of the mobile food world.

“If knew if I was asking people to pick up the truck, drive it to a site, turn it on, get it going, do sales, clean up, bring it back—I wanted to know what that entailed and felt like. And it’s not easy by any means,” Jordyn says. “The knowledge of that experience gives me an edge.”

Food with a side of social justice

While organizations like Homeboy Industries and Mission Pie have been touting the therapeutic benefits of culinary arts for a while now, Drive Change is really the first of its kind.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to take the program and put it onto wheels,” she says.

One goal is that Drive Change will play parent to a bevy of other food trucks. Its first child, set for a soft launch at the end of November, is Snowday, inspired by the time Jordyn was 12 years old and had “the most amazing food in her life” on a family trip to Canada: maple syrup over snow. Other mouthwatering items on the menu include maple bacon Brussels sprouts and pulled pork bacon maple sliders, among others.

“I don’t want someone to come up to me and say, ‘This tastes like it has a social mission,’ ” she says. “I want you to walk away having this amazing food experience and then later, if you find out it’s one of the trucks by Drive Change, then you feel even better about the fact that you contributed to a lofty social goal.”

Although it won’t hit you over the head, that lofty social goal is the main entree. Jordyn envisions hiring a cohort of eight to ten formerly incarcerated youth, and training them over a period of eight months on everything from how to use propane gas to social media marketing to accounting.

The overarching goal of Drive Change is expansion: to train more kids who can use the skills they learned to get a job or open their own food truck; to make Drive Change the go-to caterer for social good events in the NYC area; and to help start lots more trucks in other cities.

The journey hasn’t always been easy for Jordyn, but it’s always felt right.

“If you have a good enough idea and the experience to know what it takes to bring it to life, and the ability to get investment from a number of community stakeholders, then I truly believe there’ll be enough support and noise whatever the hurdles,” she says. “And something positive is going to come out of it.”

Interested in seeing how this story progresses? Follow @DriveChangeNYC and @Snowdaytruck on Twitter, and like Drive Change and Snowday on Facebook. 

Drive Change is always looking for partners. If you know a corporate sponsor who might be interested in events or catering, or a food business interested in developing or donating menu items in exchange for promotion, get in touch with

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Try this! Blend cooking lessons with English language courses. Mix well.

The students of Cooking Up English are a real melting pot of languages and cultures.

The students of Cooking Up English fixing some kebabs for the grill. (photo courtesy Casey Smith)

The idea

Casey Smith marinated on the idea for a long time. It started when she was living in Santiago a few years ago with her husband and trying to learn Spanish. She found it was easier for her to pick up words from her Chilean cookbook than to remember what she was learning in her twice-a-week language class.

“The act of having to translate the recipe and actually cooking it and tasting everything—that really worked for me,” says Casey. “I found I remembered all those words. I could really connect with it.”

The flavors, the tactile experience of making the recipes with her own hands, the surprise and delight of her Chilean neighbors when they found out she was making their favorite recipes—it all helped her learn a new language and feel connected to her community while she was in a new place.

Back in her home of Austin, Texas, Casey found that there were a lot of people who were looking for a similar experience as they were learning English in the U.S. That’s why in 2010 Casey started Cooking Up English, a hybrid cooking course and ESL program, to help folks looking to practice their English while getting a taste of American culture.

The classes, which take place in a local church kitchen, are focused around different themes. Right now they’re offering a five-week series on American breakfasts. Later this fall, it will be comfort foods.

With a spatula in hand, students practice everything from food vocabulary to expressions like “eyeballing it” while practicing conversational English as they put together the dishes.

The course also takes students on field trips to the local farmers’ market where they can learn about healthy, local foods while practicing their English by talking with the vendors.

How you can replicate it

Since its start, Cooking Up English has engaged students from 14 different countries, including Colombia, Hungary, Iraq, Russia, and South Korea.

Some are visitors, some have recently moved to the U.S., but everyone wants to practice their language skills in a supportive, appetizing environment.

Casey Smith (center) and some of her students showing off their aprons.

Casey Smith (center) and some of her students showing off their aprons. (photo courtesy Casey Smith)

If you’re interested in starting a similar project in your community, here’s Casey’s recipe for success:

1. Be open and welcoming.

Your students shouldn’t be the only ones who are there to listen and learn. As a facilitator, it’s also important for you to have an open mind.

“When you’re trying to do cultural exchange and language learning, it’s important to be on the same playing field,” says Casey. “Try not to oppress your language on another person, but to really be in a receiving mode.”

Casey says one of the most surprising and wonderful developments from Cooking Up English has been the enthusiasm her students have had for sharing their own language and recipes. At the end of the American breakfasts series, for example, students stood up in front of the class to present a breakfast recipe from their own country.

2. Use existing groups to help spread the word.

Casey says one of the biggest challenges in getting Cooking Up English off the ground was getting the word out and letting people know it existed. To help with this, they tapped into groups that were already working with their target populations—churches, immigrant groups, other ESL programs, mosques, and temples—to help spread the word.

3. Use a model.

Cooking Up English now offers complete curriculum sets including five weeks of ready-to-use materials with vocabulary essentials, visual glossaries, student worksheets, and teaching manuals for each of their eight series.

4. Be prepared.

Even if you use the Cooking Up English curriculum kit to help get you started, it’s important to have your logistics figured out. Make sure you reserve a comfortable kitchen site and have between five and seven committed instructors lined up.

For each class, Casey suggests having at least two teachers working together. “It’s always helpful to have another set of eyes to make sure a cup of salt doesn’t end up in the recipe instead of a teaspoon.”

5. Celebrate.

At the end of the Cooking Up English series, Casey likes to put on a dinner party at a board member’s home. At one of these parties, a student from Vietnam told her that even though he had lived with his family in the U.S. for three years, it was the first party he had been to in his new country.

“He felt so special to be invited,” Casey says.“I encourage everyone to have an open table, an open mind, and an open heart. We don’t want any of our new residents to wait to be invited to be a part of our community.”

Want to use Casey’s curriculum to start a Cooking Up English chapter where you live? Get in touch with her directly at

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