Smithers: Ground to Griddle Community Kitchen

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The Smithers Community Services Association (SCSA) is offering food for thought-literally.

The Ground to Griddle Neighbourhood Kitchen is working with the Princess Street Garden to teach adults how to read through cooking. The innovative program, funded by 2010 Legacies Now, teaches participants to budget, follow recipes, plan nutritious meals and cook as a group. The program also includes journal-writing workshops called Writing Out Loud.

But the formal literacy training began almost a year into the culinary project. First they had to persuade adults to come to school.

"We found that if you provided food people will come," says Jo-Anne Nugent, program manager of community learning. She describes Ground to Griddle as a food program that develops literacy skills.

When it came to persuading adults to come to classes, organizers were stymied by the stigma of illiteracy-many of their target group avoided getting help out of embarrassment. But most were too occupied with keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table to take time for learning.

"Many literally do not know where their next meal for their family of three is coming from," says Elke Heinemann-Pesch, SCSA literacy outreach coordinator. "They're so stressed over food and finding affordable housing they don't have the energy to learn."

The program was designed to kill two birds with one stone. First they had to make the adult learners feel comfortable. Many had a track record as poor students and were suspicious of any public program. And since about two-thirds of the people served come from a First Nations background, some had negative experiences in residential schools.

"A lot of people had trust issues," says Nugent, who developed her own culinary skills working in a restaurant and cooking for summer camps. "We needed to build relationships, and make people feel comfortable. Cooking does that. It's easy to create a conversation. And it's a great way to get to know people."

The group meets every week and they produce a half dozen take-home meals for about 15 families a month as well as providing lunch for the cooks. Then they work on the writing exercises.

Nugent says that after almost two years on the job, they've become a team that functions "like a well-oiled machine" in the kitchen. But what has amazed her is how the regular participants have become more confident in their reading and writing as their cooking skills developed.

When Dana Greene, 42, a housekeeper, began coming to the kitchen her dream of working in daycare was out of reach because she couldn't read well enough to get into the early childhood education program. A dropout who had spent her school years in the "slow learners group," she had limited literacy and math skills. After repeated failures, she assumed education was beyond her.

But gradually her reading improved and eventually she got up the courage to enroll in the community college to upgrade her math in preparation for that new career working with kids.

Now she's looking forward to working with children.

"I'm a shy person, but coming to the kitchen has just made me more confident in myself," Greene says, explaining how the skills she learned went far beyond reading and cooking. "I can talk to strangers now."

Literacy Now Communities guides communities through a planning process to identify and address local literacy needs. The program is supported by the Province of British Columbia.