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INTERVIEW: Megan Karch – FareStart CEO

By Laura Smith, INSP

During the 2015 INSP Global Street Paper Summit, our delegates were invited to dine at FareStart, a restaurant/organisation that empowers homeless and disadvantaged people in Seattle through culinary job training. Since 1992, it has helped 7,000 people transform their lives, while also serving over six million meals to disadvantaged people in the community. We spoke to FareStart CEO Megan Karch about their recipe for success.

How does FareStart work to help homeless and disadvantaged individuals?

FareStart helps people transform their lives and we use food as a tool to do that. We bring individuals who are homeless and disadvantaged into our kitchens throughout the city and provide job training to help them find employment. At the core we provide culinary training but in order to succeed we also provide wraparound services, such as housing support, drug and alcohol counselling, mental health counselling and case management support.

When students walk through our door, the number one thing they want is a job and a home but typically there’s a number of issues preventing them from achieving those goals. So we think it’s critical to provide support services alongside the job training.

Megan Karsch

How successful is the job training programme?

Well we know it works because 90% of our graduates get jobs with an average wage of about $11.88 an hour. The biggest challenge is getting everybody through to graduation; right now 55% make it all the way. What we’re consistently focusing on is how we get people the whole way through the program without shutting off the gate at the entrance and making it too difficult to get in.

After 15 years with FareStart, do you still get the same feeling seeing your student’s graduate?

Oh yeah, it’s probably what has kept me here for the past 15 years. Fortunately for me I see a graduation every week. We have a thing called open enrolment so new students enter the program every week and, in turn, graduate almost every week.

Students initially come in for culinary training to learn how to cook and get a job but what I most often hear at graduation is that they didn’t realise how much being reconnected with their community and family, and addressing different issues in their lives, would mean to them until they actually went through the program.

At graduation they often say they’re thrilled to get a job but what they’re most excited about is reconnecting with family and their community, and seeing value in themselves again. I think that’s the biggest thing that they get – they see themselves in a different way.

Farestart photo 1

What is the secret to FareStart’s success?

We have restaurants and cafes but we also serve meals to people in need every day, at local shelters and about 30 different schools serving kids from low income families, so our students immediately become part of the solution. Individuals walking through our door tend to be isolated. By the end of their first week we see how much pride they have in themselves and how much they value what they can do for their community. That’s a critical part of our program; having our students feel capable from day one and really see the fruits of their labour. I remember one student said to me “There’s nothing charity about this, I earned every bit of it.”

We were started by a chef called David Lee back in 1988 who was providing meals to the downtown shelters and programs that supported children from low income families. He felt we should provide the most nutritious quality meals possible to these individuals and that’s how it started. In 1992 he realised that if he started brining some of the people he was giving meals to into his kitchen, he could start training them in a skill and provide them a way out from where they are.

We were founded in 1992 on the idea that, while providing meals to people was very important, actually offering a way for somebody to transform their life was even more so. What he quickly learned was that providing the training in the kitchen wasn’t that easy – you need to provide all the support services as well and that was how we ended up providing  housing and support and life skills for our students.

Farestart pic thank you

So Farestart offers both a practical and holistic approach to getting people back into work and housing?

Absolutely. Basically what we believe in is that we need to look at the individual and be holistic in terms of what we’re providing them. I would say one of the reasons I believe strongly that our program works is that it’s applied training. They are in a classroom then they are going down into the kitchen and testing out what they learned in the classroom and then going back up to the classroom and analysing what they did.

The other part that’s critical for our program to succeed is creating a sense of belonging and sense of community for our students. Food can help create that. Individuals walking through our door tend to be isolated – our job is to try to give that sense of community back to them so they can see the value in it and build it for themselves.

Your work now reaches much further than Seattle. Tell us about the Catalyst Kitchens program.

We decided we had a model that works so we wanted to help provide leadership to help people start similar projects in their region. We help people start out but we also help them grow and expand. Catalyst Kitchens was designed on that premise. Our belief is that we were created in our community and succeed because of our community and so you just can’t franchise the FareStart model in other cities. But we can replicate what is successful about our model in other cities by creating it from within the local community. We also believe that we should be sharing our best practices and how we’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve got about 67 members; one in Scotland, two in Canada, and the rest are located throughout the US.

What do you think about the street paper model?

I think it’s a great model. What I love is that it helps connect those who are homeless with their communities and vice versa. It really helps homeless individuals get back their dignity, start earning wages and feel like they have value. I think it does a great job for advocacy on homeless issues. We’ve had students of ours come from Real Change and go on to work with Real Change, so I know that street paper fairly well. I think the writing and articles are excellent.

 

To find out more about Farestart and Catalyst Kitchens, visit www.farestart.org

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