Both organizations have rules and guidelines around meals and kitchen use. These include orientations to the kitchen and safety assessments. Some of the youth at ROP have never made their own meals. Life skills are a key means of teaching the youth how to create their own meals before they graduate.
“Cooking would be another example that’s really critical. Before we really beefed up our kitchen program we would have kids that had graduated from the program…it was sad to hear that they were living in the community pretty successfully but they went to a fast food place to get their dinner every night. So that really concerned me; we were graduating kids from the program and clearly they didn’t really know how to cook and do that piece, so we’ve really beefed up that side of the program so that kids leave and know they shouldn’t spend all their money on fast food.” — Carol Howes, Director of Program Services, Covenant House Toronto
CHT: Limited quantities of basic food staples are always available in the ROP kitchen, provided through their Food Services Department. This includes cereal, milk, bread, juice, soup, rice, pasta, onions and carrots. Youth are provided with a bin in the refrigerator to store their fresh food and a small locker area for dry goods.
Youth are also able to go to the Crisis shelter for lunch and/or dinner. The ROP residents go over as a group at a set time. For youth who are offsite (i.e. school, work or approved appointment) a lunch can be made to take with them. Those who are offsite for program reasons during dinner may sign up for a saved dinner. This meal is stored in the lounge fridge and must be accessed via staff. If the meal is not eaten by 5pm the next day it’s transferred to the kitchen fridge for general consumption.
CHT has fairly strict rules in place about kitchen access. In particular, a staff member must be present before a youth is allowed to use a stovetop. At times, this means youth may need to wait for a staff person to be free before preparing their meal.
CHV: A limited supply of groceries is available for youth on Steps 1-3, which is intended to supplement a youth’s grocery budget, not replace it. Youth may store their own food items in the kitchen fridge or freezer providing they are not too big and are clearly marked.
Youth are responsible for preparing their own food for breakfast and lunch, either individually or cooperatively with other residents. Youth on Steps 4-6 are fully responsible for providing their own breakfast, lunch and snacks (exceptions include communal meals they participate in, Sunday brunch, cooking class meals or special events).
A dinner is served nightly from 5:20pm to 6pm in the main floor dining room. One of the goals of the meal is to build a sense of community by providing an opportunity for social interaction. Saved dinners are available (must be requested in advance) for youth in Steps 1-4 who are at work or school during dinner time. They will be kept on a tray which can be reheated in the kitchen on the youth’s floor. For youth on Steps 5 and 6 saved dinners are not available and the youth must supply and prepare their own meal if they miss the dinner.
A weekly Community Dinner is hosted by ROP and unless excused by their Key Worker (for a reason connected to their case plan i.e. work or school), all youth residing in ROP are required to attend. Former ROP residents who are 25 and under are allowed to attend as long as they are not under the influence during the meal or carded (i.e. suspended/banned) by CHV. Youth may invite family or friends to attend under the guidelines of the ROP Visitor’s Policy.
At CHV, youth have open access to their common kitchens with two exceptions:
- no deep frying
- knives are locked so they have to sign them in and out as needed
Youth are free to use the stove without a staff member present and have access to the common kitchens unsupervised.
Homeless Hub Thoughts:
It is critical to develop the skills associated with meal preparation, including budgeting, planning, shopping, cooking and clean-up. At the same time, especially in the early stages, youth may not have the funds or ability to prepare their own meals. The mix of options that both locations offer – provision of basic staples, introduction to shopping, meal planning and cooking through life skills, ability to have meals with the crisis/shelter program – is a good way to address the barriers.
Vancouver’s Step program is useful in that it gradually increases independence by ensuring that youth take charge of more and more of their own meal preparation. Access to the dining room meal program exists for dinners even in the later steps (although not saved meals), which ensures that youth are able to eat if they are running low on funds or otherwise unable to prepare a meal for themselves on a particular day.
We found Covenant House Toronto’s kitchen access to be too strict:
- The kitchen passport is overly complicated and does not model what is done in a home kitchen (and perhaps not even a professional one). While recognizing that safety is important we also want to assist youth to begin to develop their kitchen skills as quickly as possible. While CHT recently modified some of its passport requirements they feel that tasks/learnings are necessary to ascertain a baseline of skills.
- Access to the stove is an area of concern brought up in the interviews and also noted in the review of policies. Again, while recognizing that safety is key, it is also important to give youth a sense of independence. The youngest participant in ROP is 16 years old and by that age should be able to use a stove unsupervised (or at least can with some training). CHT notes that despite the training that exists, two grease fires were contained quickly because of the presence of staff.
We suggest that agencies developing their own program consider easing the guidelines so that after a youth has completed a certain number of cooking life skills or has successfully used the stove in front of staff a few times that the youth may move to independent use.