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Food can bridge divisions in ideology and politics while sparking animated conversations like nothing else. Everyone eats, and taste buds don’t discriminate.
Even timid eaters will salivate for Sri Lankan butter cake with lime drizzle, Jordanian pickles, Ugandan sauteed corn, and talapaw, a traditional dish from the Karen State of Myanmar.
Those international items are among the items offered in culturally themed Family Meals available from the team at MAKE Projects, who is creating a more inclusive San Diego food industry by preparing refugees and immigrants to gain a profession there. MAKE stands for Merging Agriculture, Kitchens, and Employment, and the organization champions eating well while doing good.
The program leads CHOP Kitchen, a 12-week early employment program for low-income refugee and immigrant women that not only prepares them for the ins and outs of working in a U.S. commercial kitchen, but encourages them to preserve and uplift their cultures, through offering menus designed by the participants themselves. “Locally-sourced and globally inspired” is the phrase that is most often reiterated.
“Our customers can take pride in the fact that contributing their business forms the basis for our training program—the production of our meals and dining experiences provide essential, real-world experience our participants need to prepare for entry into the workforce,” explains Anchi Mei, Executive Director of MAKE Projects.
“Our greatest challenge is helping our clients overcome and bridge the ever-widening income, employment, and educational gaps in our disparate economy and society,” she says.
It is hard for any low-income family in San Diego to pay rent, utilities, and provide nutritious food for their household while also attempting to complete educational and job training. The pandemic has only compounded that reality. Corporations consolidating goods and services and turning to automation and e-commerce en masse have not supported essential workers and created new challenges for those new to the workforce.
“Now imagine doing all that after surviving and fleeing war and persecution, and finally arriving in the United States with only what you can carry,” Mei says.
She explained that the locally-sourced, globally-inspired vision for MAKE Projects isn’t just about their menu.
“It also happens to reflect many of our shared world visions and ethos for how to be a positive change agent with all that is troubling and turbulent in our world,” she says. “Which is to say, there is a lot about climate change, democracy building, and income inequality we need to tackle. Let’s start with real solutions here in our local community and local economy.”
MAKE Projects is focused on developing into a thriving food business that will provide transitional and permanent employment to over 1,000 refugee and immigrant youth in the next five years. In 2021, they officially became their own independent, full-fledged social enterprise after originally being incubated by the International Rescue Committee.
In addition to operating a brunch cafe on Saturday mornings, weekly Family Meal delivery, and CHOP Kitchen, MAKE Projects also includes Youth FarmWorks, a 6-week paid internship program for youth to intern on the MAKE marketing team and explore the different worlds of digital media, publishing, farming, and business. Interns develop the organization’s weekly newsletter, social media posts, quarterly magazine, and support the community supported agriculture (CSA) program.
The program also operates other career-focused educational programs, a cultural center, marketplace, and a thriving urban farm in the heart of North Park. The program’s impact—having graduated 161 job trainees from 26 countries—hints at its long-term viability, if supported by elected officials, government agencies, and a private sector that recognizes the value of San Diego’s working-class and immigrant populations.
“There are so many great stories,” Mei said. “And skills acquired from the program can be transitioned outside of the food industry too. We recently worked with a Haitian participant who said she gained so much confidence through CHOP Kitchen that she has upgraded her career plans to now pursue nursing while she works as a patient aide in a senior care facility.”
“This program taught me how to cook, communicate, and interview, and now I can become a chef,” says Nicole Bonane, a trainee who completed the program in 2020. “I’m now working with Urban Corps and getting my GED.”