"Stirring up change one community at a time"

  • Published
  • By by Tech. Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney
  • 103rd Airlift Wing
Learning to cook with the flair of a master chef, having memorable conversations over a delicious meal, and developing bonds with your peers sparked by the love of good food—these are the founding principles of JR Chef, a culinary arts program for youth offered through Nourish My Soul, a non-profit organization.

Alicia Newton, nutritionist, Founder and Executive Director of Nourish My Soul, conceived the idea of a youth culinary program when she noticed how difficult it was for her adult clients to break their unhealthy eating habits.

“I was a nutritionist for many years in private practice and I got really frustrated with our system of trying to repair people’s health after they’ve had years of bad habits,” said Newton. “I started looking at programs that could help youth develop healthier habits, so that we prevent the need for intervention later down the road.”

In 2018, JR Chef Boot Camp, which is a JR Chef program designed for the children of current and former military members, became the first culinary arts program to be awarded a grant by the Hartford Arts Council. JR Chef is unique because of what it offers to youth and their communities. In addition to culinary skills, the program is designed to teach the importance of leadership and facilitate healthy relationships. JR Chef also supports farmers by using locally-grown produce, which is often more nutritious than factory-produced food. Finally, as the JR Chef tagline, “Stirring up change one community at a time,” suggests, each JR Chef cooking session ends with a community outreach project.

“We try to give them a space where they [JR Chef participants] brackets for added text belong and where they can really flourish,” said Newton. “We also mandate that they give back to their communities, so it connects them back into the community at a time when they may be trying to pull away. It empowers them to show that they can become leaders in their communities.”

JR Chef Boot Camp combines the benefits of JR Chef with the veteran’s mental health initiative, Resilience Grows Here. It is the goal of both programs to provide a non-threatening and non-traditional environment for participants to develop certain attributes that help build resilience. Newton hopes to offer the children of current and former service members a unique opportunity to bond and build resilience while having fun and honing their cooking skills together. The program includes events similar to the popular television show “Chopped” in which participants are able to compete like the chefs they’ve seen on the show. Newton plans to have psychology experts, as well as mentors from the culinary field, visit participants during program sessions.

“It’s not only cooking,” said Newton. “We’re going to be playing games and engaging in conversation about being resilient.”

Kasey Timberlake, Airman and Family Readiness Program Manager, agreed with Newton, saying that the program offers a natural environment for youth to bond and build resilience.

“I come from a large Irish and Italian family, so food equals love to us,” said Timberlake. “To me, that’s the most exciting part about this program. There are so many conversations that happen while you’re cooking and so much learning about people and their experiences. It’s not only learning a skill, it’s learning about the people you’re working with and sharing stories. It’s a very natural environment to start addressing resilience issues.”