Fresh Chefs Society is a non-profit organization with steep aspirations and humble roots. Co-founder Shaleiah Fox set out to create a positive environment and engage with foster care youths through the medium of food. Meeting Shaleiah, you would never have guessed the hardships she once overcame as a child, with her grace, radiant smile, and sunny disposition. Having grown up in and out of the foster care system in Florida from birth to 11 years of age, Fox saw and experienced first hand the struggles of the typical child in care and common themes that arose. Food insecurity issues such as hoarding and binging were prevalent among kids transferred to foster care homes. Locks on fridges and pantries were the norm. Food was not a safe space. Fox recalls that at one particular home, the family had their own nourishing home cooked meals, which they ate separately, while she and her sister were fed rice and beans. She notes that while there was nothing inherently wrong with these foods in and of themselves, there was a palpable sense of separatism that she could feel even at that young age.
“It made me feel, I’m not worthy of that meal. I’m different and this is what I deserve. That really stuck with me.”
The climate of alienation felt by kids in foster care, on top of abandonment by their biological families, provided no sense of security and control in the youths’ lives. Fox’s own mother struggled at length with substance abuse. She and her younger sister were moved from home to home but managed to stay together. Yet, the common consensus among children in care was that “No matter how bad it is at home you never want to leave.” They yearned more than anything for a sense of normalcy.
Out of these hardships and struggles came a sense of resilience, strength and resolve in Fox, which led to the creation of this organization. Fresh Chefs uses a positive environment to provide a safe place for kids to explore and create their own food culture. “There’s beauty in struggle,” says Fox. Hardships create empathy, and she feels this is what enabled her to withstand more than most.
“Anyone who goes through anything traumatic, there is a silver lining, and you have to be brave enough to pursue it. Your family situation doesn’t have to define who you are. The greatest indicator of success for youth in care is normalcy. That’s how I was able to not be a statistic because I saw that life could be normal outside of what I experienced.”
Once back in her own home, Fox has fond memories of cooking with her mother. They cooked together frequently when she was sober. Later in college, food would become an anchor for Fox, building a community and family of friends around the joint meal experience. “I could form my own family around meals. Being able to cook for people. Learning about friends and what was important to their culture with cooking.” Communal meals became a language in which experiences were shared and strong friendships were formed. Now, Fox enjoys cooking for her family, and her 1 ½ year old son Miles, who she is a role model to and teaches positive associations with food. “It’s heartwarming to see he loves food like I do. It was very intentional for me from day one that food is a safe space. Food is the building block of this young human that I love more than anything.” In their home, there is no reprimanding around food. She and her husband Reid take turns cooking and make it a point to always sit down together for dinner. Although Fox does most of the cooking, Reid holds his own in the kitchen where Fox laughingly states, “He’s not a one trick pony.” Her relationship with food has evolved through time, and continues to do so.
“How you interact with food changes. You don’t have to be a chef to love food. Being a home cook is just as important and I think in a lot of ways, more important. Food is something you can create family around. You can nourish yourself. You can work. You can make a living. You can bridge gaps.”
Fox believes in the power of food to transform and heal, and that it is a vehicle for positivity. “Food is extremely powerful. We take it for granted, but it can be instrumental in changing someone’s direction in life.” Even on a limited budget, for kids to learn how to cook for themselves means they own it, and have control in an environment where there is little control. With no real parental guidance growing up, kids aging out of the foster care system don’t know how to shop for themselves and cook. Fresh Chefs seeks to create a normal existence around food, teaching them the skills to live sustainably on their own. The organization strives to stay dynamic and adapt to current needs. Their structure is a combination of one-time events and extended apprentice programs, where kids are empowered by the ability to complete something at length. The youth are always paid, showing them that their skill and time is worth something. Since its inception in 2012, Fresh Chefs has served over 300 kids and is 99% volunteer run.
We sat down with Shaleiah and asked her how she strives for balance as a parent. Here are her tips on healthy family eating habits:
What is your weekly cooking routine?
Sundays are my days to cook for Miles, because he takes food to school. I spend 2-3 hours cooking for him. Sometimes it’s a joy and sometimes it’s a chore, but there’s nothing I would change about that time. I’m boiling down spinach and apples and blueberries so he doesn’t know I just gave him like 8 servings of spinach, because this week he hates spinach (laughs). I’m a big fan of one-pot meals. We did a month of different casserole themes once, or soup in the winter that lasts until Wednesday. And at the end of week, it’s kind of light, so you have your salads. I always grill in bulk. So you have your grilled veggies and proteins that you can put on your salads, over rice, or pitas.
What is always in your fridge?
Baby spinach and kale. Multipurpose greens that you can put in everything from smoothies to sautees.
Red and yellow peppers for snacking on. They have more vitamin C than citrus which is important when you go, go, go.
A pack of chicken for grilling in bulk
Sheleiah’s Top 3 Tips for Busy Parents:
- Batch-cook big one pot meals like casseroles, soups or oatmeal that lasts for several days
- Grill veggies and protein in bulk and use them as toppers for salads, rice, and pitas for the rest of the week
- Pre-prep and pre-wash if you know you will be using the produce within a few days.
One take-away Fox hopes all kids leave with: Making a meal is empowering! “It is a belief in a skill that can translate to other things. Belief in their abilities that they can apply and secure a job, belief in their ability to repair relationships.”