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FareStart Pivots

It's a back-to-their-roots moment

It might be surprising to many that FareStart started in 1988 as a for-profit business called Common Meals that provided nutritious, quality meals to homeless shelters. It became a non-profit in 1992, changing its name to FareStart in March of that year to bring attention to their job training. From the beginning, it's been a program that has successfully helped people find stable footing before, during, and after difficult times.

Chef Wayne on the sandwich line

Now a new challenge has arisen with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Training safely in-person became a stumbling block to training programs, catering, restaurant, and cafes they operate. "We went all in on emergency meals," says Stephanie Schoo, FareStart's Marketing & Communications Director. "Initially, it was a roller coaster ride trying to decipher mandates and protocols so we could safely provide meals to organizations that serve adults, youth, and families experiencing homelessness or are low income. "We feel like we've found our rhythm now, at least until the rules change again!"

FareStart's national membership and consulting initiative, Catalyst Kitchens, assists more than 80 non-profit members across North America as they all face the same issues. To give you an idea of their reach, as of the end of May, FareStart locally has provided over 500,000 meals. Nationally, Catalyst Kitchen member organizations collectively provide 350,000 meals a week.

It became apparent to the FareStart team that they had to pivot in order to meet the increased need they were seeing on a daily basis, while still supporting the students in the various training programs. Yet like all other businesses, they've had to close their catering operations, restaurant, cafes, etc. How to help the program participants working at these locations?

Meal prep

Collaboration is the key to success. Once they focused on the who (homeless, living in poverty), they reached out to the programs that work with those groups. Groups like the Downtown Emergency Services Center (that now has to practice social distancing), Plymouth Housing (which has always provided meals, but now needs help with increased demand), YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs of King County, King County COVID-19 isolation and recovery sites, and 26 Seattle Public Schools (which provide lunches, but are now able to supply reheatable dinners with FareStart's assistance). The current count is over 100 sites for 30+ organizations.

With the people in need and organizations in place, FareStart reached out to corporate partners who provide things like packaging supplies for the meals. First & Goal Hospitality, in-house concessions for CenturyLink Field, provides their kitchens at the stadiums and staff to help make meals. Taylor Hoang Restaurants provides warehouse space, transportation, and other logistical support. MOD Pizza was supplying pizzas to a shelter in the beginning which has now had to move. But they are ready to jump back in as needed. Collins Family Farm, with funding help from PCC Community Markets, provides a ton of apples that are incorporated into meals. "These kind of bulk, in-kind donations help keep costs down," explains Stephanie.

In addition to food partner kitchens, FareStart uses their own: 7 th & Virginia, the former Maslow's Kitchen which Amazon has allowed them to retain although the restaurant is closed, and the Pacific Tower kitchen on Beacon Hill. FareStart delivers meals to the various sites with help from the Seahawks and Amazon Treasure Trucks. "It's been incredible to see partners and organizations work together to meet these needs. We now have good lifelines to continue helping to decrease food insecurity in the community," says Stephanie.

Not forgetting their students, weekly (or more often as needed) meetings are held by phone or videoconference, and their housing costs are covered. They receive to-go breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and are given employment assistance. Many are working at grocery stores, doing home delivery, cleaning offices, etc. In addition, FareStart has hired about two dozen graduates from their training programs to help make emergency meals. Students who were working at the now closed restaurant, cafes, and catering programs are also in the kitchen helping make meals.

"We're in the beginning stages of how to handle the adult culinary training virtually until we can get everyone back in the kitchen," Stephanie explains. "Our annual gala, our largest fundraising event, will go virtual as well later this year. When we look at what we provide, training for people to work in the restaurant industry and beyond, the problem becomes - what will these businesses look like in the near future? No one knows. How do we train for a market we don't yet understand? What will the future trends be? We're working closely with employer partners to help us pave the way forward."

In the meantime, the meals keep rolling out. Obviously, bulk, in-kind food donations help, but cash is king. "Cash allows us to remain flexible." You can donate in two ways on their website. You can send money to their general fund, or to the COVID-19 Response & Recovery Fund they have created. "This fund helps meet the emergency food needs during the crisis and will ensure future support of vulnerable populations through FareStart programs and operations both locally and across North America. It supports expenses like food, meal production, and delivery; staffing and labor; student and graduate support; enhanced safety and social distancing protocols; consulting and resources for Catalyst Kitchen members. In addition, it will support recovery expenses like re-launching training programs and restarting the restaurant, cafés, and catering; meeting increased community needs, and student-related expenses," explains Stephanie.

Chefs at the ready

"As a staff member, I am proud that we have not laid off anyone and that we have redeployed people from their jobs to realize FareStart's mission and help our neighbors in need during this crisis."

Connie Adams/June 2020

Photos courtesy of Farestart - general donations - in-kind food or other products


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