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Port Coquitlam cooking course teaches youth how to feed themselves and their families

Educating through food: A new program teaches cooking, job and budget skills to Tri-City youth so they can take care of themselves when they are adults.
Karen Curtis Youth Gour-Made web size
Karen Curtis shops for 40 families each week as part of Youth Gour-Made. A cooking program teaching life and job skills to Port Coquitlam youth.

A free program that teaches Tri-City youth how to shop and cook is a weekly highlight for as many as 40 families.

Like a home delivery meal kit popular with stressed-out millennials, Youth Gour-Made delivers ingredients, a recipe card and a how-to video so youth 12 and older can learn how to make a meal for their families.

"It's a life skill," says teaching chef Karen Curtis, who does the shopping, preps the meals and prepares the recipe cards with help from youth who are in the program.

According to Curtis, who previously ran the Port Coquitlam Farmers Market and has her own business, Kics Lemonade, the program is eye-opening for many kids, who don't typically pay attention to where their food comes from.

Many come from low-income families, so knowing how to stretch a dollar and prepare food properly is critical for their healthy development.

Among the meals the youth have made include macaroni and cheese, broccoli and beef and even quiche, with Curtis demonstrating techniques, including how to slice meat properly in the video prepared with the help of youth.

The program is the brain-child of ACCESS Youth, a long-time youth advocacy organization that also runs the Project Reach Out Bus.

Executive director Jessica Williams said it was started just prior to the pandemic as a way to connect youth through a community kitchen. 

Youth learn skills that will help them get jobs

Food is a common denominator for all, but Williams believes many kids lack the basic life skills.

"Some kids don't know how to use a broom and a mop and don’t know how to boil water or how to shop for groceries. The junk food they buy is really unhealthy stuff."

With grants from various organizations, including the Port Coquitlam Foundation, the federal government's Second Harvest program and the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation, ACCESS Youth is able to run the program to support 40 youth and their families with ingredients for a healthy meal once a week.

In addition to learning how to cook, other free programs are offered, such as FoodSafe and Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) courses.

"The food service industry loves hiring teenagers," said Williams.

But as important as teaching life skills — and feeding families — are the connections the youth make to the ACCESS Youth organization, which has years of experience supporting vulnerable youth in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody.

Williams said staff are available to support families — so a meal kit can become a direct line to resources and services.

Program helps youth facing mental health concerns or family trauma

In one recent instance, Williams said the sibling of a Gour-Made participant died of an overdose, causing the family terrible grief.

"We were there on the doorstep, helping them through the trauma," said Williams, who explained that ACCESS was able to connect the family to support groups and agencies

However, keeping Youth Gour-Made operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and inflationary price hikes has posed multiple challenges.

A federal gas rebate for staff, although increased, only covers about a third of the cost of gas and food prices have gone through the roof.

"We were among the first to notice food prices going up," Williams acknowledged, noting monthly food costs have increased from less than $400 a month to $750. 

"What things cost us in 2020 those items have doubled in 2022, its absolutely absurd."

High cost of food makes running the cooking course a challenge

Local food suppliers occasionally step up, however. Rossdown Farms supplied chickens so the youth could learn how to cook a roast chicken, use the left overs for sandwiches or chicken pot pie and make stock out of the carcass.

More donations, however, would enable Gour-Made to enrol more youth; currently, there is a long waiting list, Williams said.

"We know we can make meaningful change when they are teenagers and it significantly decreases addiction as adults, homelessness, and mental health issues," she said.

If you wish to contribute to the program, you're encouraged to visit ACCESS Youth's website or contact Williams directly at 604-525-1888.