Shoulder to Shoulder

FareStart provides a path out of poverty through food preparation.

Founded in 1987 by Seattle chef David Lee, FareStart—then called Common Meals—was originally devoted solely to feeding the homeless. Lee says his goal was to provide high-quality meals to people in need. Since then, however, the organization has broadened its horizons—and become a major local success story. The program works, and FareStart has the numbers to prove it. "There was an attitude of, 'They're homeless, they'll eat whatever I prepare,'" Lee says of other programs that were in place when he started Common Meals. As his organization grew, Lee realized he could help a greater number of people by offering homeless and low-income individuals a more active role. Thus, in the early '90s, Common Meals began training disadvantaged men and women to prepare the meals it supplied to the homeless community. A change in purpose merited a new name, and soon after, Common Meals became FareStart. After a two-year period of growth and expansion, FareStart opened its Second Avenue restaurant and began training students for careers in the food industry. The restaurant started simply: At first, it offered a buffet. Later, a limited menu was developed, and eventually the business became a full-service restaurant that drew enough of a crowd at lunch to break even. In addition, on Thursdays the restaurant hosts a popular Guest Chef Night, in which a local chef, with the help of FareStart students, serves a three-course gourmet dinner for the unbeatable price of $16.95. The restaurant—along with FareStart's Rainier Valley and Central Library cafes, its catering services, and its meal-production branches—provides 40 percent of the program's operating budget; the other 60 percent comes from donations. Although Lee has since left FareStart to found the Field Roast Grain Meat Company in Georgetown, he's pleased with its success. "I'm really proud of the people I passed it off to, and impressed with what they have done," he says. Lee continues to support the organization, occasionally appearing as a guest chef. Currently, FareStart accepts anyone with proof of no income and 30 days of sobriety. David Carleton, FareStart's business development and community relations manager, says drug tests arent' required because the goal is to provide a community where people won't feel judged. Prospective students are given a two-week orientation to decide if the program is for them. Throughout that period, FareStart provides them with assistance and resource referrals. Not everyone decides to enter the training program. "Many realize they're going to have to work really hard and aren't ready for that," Carleton says. For others, the timing isn't right, or they have other obligations (such as young children) that prevent them from committing to 40 hours a week. Still, 275 of the 400-plus people who received FareStart's services last year became students. An additional 300 were turned away because FareStart didn't have enough resources. Students in the program are trained via classroom instruction and hands-on experience. Young people ages 14 to 21 can enroll in the Youth Barista Program, which operates out of FareStart's cafes. Adults are trained in the restaurant, catering program, and contracted meal service; they learn a variety of skills, including guest services, line cooking, and fine dining. Students also receive life-skills training that covers conflict management, professionalism, personal accountability, and job skills like interviewing and résumé writing. By graduation, students are prepared to be self-sufficient and work for either restaurants or catering companies. In addition to career training, FareStart ensures that its students have food, clothing, transportation, access to medical and counseling services, and a safe place to sleep. All of this costs between $5,000 and $7,000 per student, but Carleton insists that these services are a large part of the progam's success. "If you don't know where you're going to sleep at night, you can't concentrate on chopping broccoli or making soup," he says. For the last decade, FareStart has made its Guest Chef Night a noteworthy event in the local food community and a coveted volunteer opportunity for the region's premier chefs. Over 150 chefs—including Christine Keff of Flying Fish, John Howie of Seastar, and Tamara Murphy of Brasa—have volunteered their time and resources. Guest Chef Night also draws support from a number of other area businesses. Corporate sponsors like Starbucks, Grand Central Bread Company, and Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery provide coffee, bread, wine, and other items, so all proceeds go directly to FareStart. In its 10-year history, Guest Chef Night has raised over $1 million. The event also draws volunteer servers. Stan Christie, a recent volunteer, says he was attracted to FareStart because of the nature of the program. "It's an accessible organization that gives people an opportunity to start over," Christie says. Chef Tom Black of the Barking Frog, a frequent participant in Guest Chef Night, says the program is "a grassroots opportunity for chefs." He enjoys participating because he gets to interact with the very people supported by the benefit. "It's the only program where we [chefs] get out of our restaurants and work shoulder to shoulder with [students]," Black says. After putting its students through the paces, FareStart works to place them in jobs, usually with benefits and opportunities for wage progression. Ultimately, though, it's the students who have to take the initiative. "Our job is to empower them," Carleton says. Most FareStart students are up to the task. According to Black, they tend to be "focused on getting out of the holes that life has put them in." The proof of their determination is in the pudding, as it were: Eighty percent of graduates have a job by graduation, and four-fifths of those workers have the same job one year later. FareStart Restaurant, 1902 Second Ave., 206-443-1233, DOWNTOWN. Lunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Fri. Guest Chef Night: seatings at 5:30 and 7:45 p.m. Thurs. FareStart's annual Food Lover's Auction will be held at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, 411 University St. 5–9 p.m. Sun., Oct. 10. $200 and up (includes dinner); call 206-267-6224 for tickets.

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