Sounds of the Season

Food helps youth connect at Kitchener's Safe Haven shelter

Youth who stay at Safe Haven Youth Services in downtown Kitchener cook together and learn how to make food budgets and plan meals. Nearly all of the food the shelter uses is from The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

Cooking together is 'a really interesting way to build relationships,' says program manager

Lindsey White is the program supervisor at Safe Haven Youth Services, which operates a shelter in downtown Kitchener. She says having the youth cook and eat together helps build relationships and they earn important life skills at the same time. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

All month long, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo is raising food and funds for The Food Bank of Waterloo Region. Join our live program Dec. 7 at TheMuseum. 

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Some of the youth who walk through the doors of Safe Haven may have never sat down for a family meal.

Their first experience at a dining table might be with other youth and shelter staff. They may be quiet at first, but program supervisor Lindsey White says food can really help them open up. Youth at the downtown Kitchener shelter help prepare the meals everyone will eat.

"It's a really interesting way to build relationships with the youth that come in. It's really non-threatening. We're cooking together, but with that we're building those positive relationships to hopefully help them," White said.

All it can take to start a conversation sometimes is for a youth to ask where a can opener is located or how best to chop the carrots.

"It's an interesting thing, the relationship we have with food and what that brings about," White said.

Learn to cook, budget and meal plan

Lutherwood's Safe Haven Youth Services has three program areas: It's a crisis program for youth 12 to 18, it provides short-term stays for youth entering treatment programs and it helps 16 and 17-year-olds prepare for independent living.

Each night, the shelter can house up to 10 youth. There's no daytime programming, but they do provide three meals a day plus snacks. In the afternoons and evenings, youth can watch TV or play foosball, they help make dinner and then there are other programs such as art therapy, anger management and how to apply for jobs.

Food is also a big part of the programming. Along with cooking meals, staff work with youth on meal planning, budgets, and how to access the various agencies that partner with The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

"At the beginning, the youth are kind of like, 'Well, I don't know if I really need that,'" White said.

"Then we really look at, OK, here's what your budget is for the month and coming after bills and everything else, there's really little less for food."

Staff will go over what might be in a food hamper, how to make three meals from it, how to freeze extra and what they might need to buy to make a complete meal with the food hamper items.

"Maybe you only need $10 every two weeks to buy certain items to enhance those things," she said.

A meal in the fridge at Safe Haven shows youth how they can prepare food when living on their own, such as writing cooking instructions and a date on the tinfoil. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Dinner is a 'focal point' of the evening

The shelter receives 90 per cent of its food from The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and White says they couldn't do their jobs without that support.

In 2017, that meant Safe Haven received about 12,750 pounds of food. Twice a week, refrigerated trucks provide perishable and non-perishable food items for the shelter.

Having access to food makes a big difference in the lives of the youth, White says.

"We do have youth who come to us with some historic food insecurity, so being able to access food, going down to the kitchen and just opening up the fridge and being able to eat maybe is something they haven't been able to do in the past," she said.

Those meals around the table each evening can be quiet but they can also get rowdy, White says. Each night is different, but cooking and eating together builds a sense of camaraderie.

"Some are shy and don't really want to speak about anything that's occurring with them, however, we do see more of a, not joyful, but [the meal] is kind of joyful — it's something that's a focal point of the evening."

And sometimes, food helps the youth connect with each other and that helps them grow as individuals.

"We had one youth who showed such pride and joy in samosas, teaching us how to do those," White said. "It was a big deal for him to come and do that."

Teaching youth about food is a huge part of ensuring they'll be successful when they're no longer at Safe Haven, White says.

"It's something that they don't have to worry about when they're moving out. They're 16, 17 living on their own, that's a huge deal to begin with, so that's one less worry off their plate," she said.

The weekly menu is on a white board in one of the lounges of Safe Haven. There's also a calendar that includes various programs, including art therapy, anger management, career choices and 'cooking towards independence.' (Kate Bueckert/CBC)