PACT URBAN PEACE PROGRAM, TORONTO

Toronto young offender program gets troubled kids cooking, building future

CASSANDRA SZKLARSKI

TORONTO (CP) – His weekly diet of drugs and alcohol didn’t exactly meet the standards set out by Canada’s food guide.

The now-aspiring cook admits that as a young man, his quick temper and burgeoning substance abuse problem was a recipe for disaster.

Until the courts imposed a six-week cooking class.

Now the 17-year-old high school dropout, who can’t be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, says he’s eager to turn his life around, finish high school and voluntarily enrol in a substance abuse program.

“I’m going to do it, just for me,” he says, proud to declare he’s taking charge of his future.

The teen is one of 12 youths set to graduate Tuesday from an inaugural six-week cooking course devised for young offenders.

Organized by a youth crime prevention group known as PACT, the PACT Main Course Cooking School is an attempt to keep Toronto-area young offenders out of the justice system amidst a dearth of community service programs to address their needs, says spokesman Terance Brouse.

It was an unorthodox idea, he admits, but one where he immediately saw potential.

“Cooking is sort of like a metaphor for creation right from the start,” says Brouse, who used to work as a chef.

“Following a recipe, following a process of cooking, is a great metaphor for prioritizing and doing things you’ve got to do in life as well.”

Students in the class, most aged 14 to 17, prepare one dish a week while learning about nutrition, meal planning and affordable shopping. For their sixth and final class, students shop for ingredients, create a big meal and serve it to the less fortunate such as lonely seniors, Brouse says.

The privately funded program’s first graduates will celebrate their final class Tuesday with a ceremony attended by Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry.

For Brouse, the link between nutrition and a teen’s self-esteem is clear.

“It’s all tied together,” he says. “A kid – or an adult, for that matter – that eats junk food all the time, it’s going to affect their body chemistry, it’s going to affect not only the way they end up looking, in terms of health, but the way they end up feeling in terms of mental health.”

Justice Rick Blouin says he often worries about the kinds of community service work young offenders are forced to take on, noting troubled kids are likely to reoffend unless given the drive or focus to rebuild their lives.

“Judges like myself will impose community service and we never know exactly what they do,” says Blouin, who recalls his attempts as a Crown attorney to divert as many lower-level young offenders as he could to community service orders in lieu of jail time.

“Some of it is useful and I guess some of it is not anything but make-work.”

“Maybe something like this, might really provide a springboard to some connection in the future.”

When he returned to the courts a year later charged with failing to comply with a probation order, he dreaded community service until his probation officer suggested the cooking school.

“I was kind of iffy about it in the start, because, it was a cooking class!” says the teen.

“But it was real good. . . . I didn’t expect it to be as good.”

Not only is he rethinking his unhealthy habits, but he’s making plans for his future.

“I’m probably going to take another cooking class. Something more in-depth, though,” he says, adding he’s also drawn to a career in criminology.

The cooking school is just one part of the restorative justice offered by PACT – an acronym for participation, acknowledgement, commitment and transformation.

The program’s hallmark is its aboriginal-inspired resolution conferences in which an offender meets with their victim to address the crime and come up with a way to heal the harm. This could involve anger management courses or restitution.

Then, the youth is referred to a community service agency – such as Meals on Wheels or the PACT Main Course Cooking School – where they can make amends.

The cooking school currently offers only one course in Toronto but hopes to soon move into the surrounding areas of Peel, Durham and Halton regions, and eventually the rest of the province.

Also in the works are a film school, a farm in the city and a discovery camp, says Brouse.

PACT’s program is not unique in employing a kitchen to reach out to young people.

Perhaps the most well-known is the one headed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, whose U.K.-based Fifteen Foundation trains disadvantaged young people to have careers in the restaurant industry.

In Edmonton, street kids aged 16 to 24 have been running the Kids In The Hall Bistro since 1996. Edmonton City Hall came up with the plan as a way to stabilize young lives and teach them the skills they need to get jobs.

A similar program was launched in Vancouver in 1989. Most of the street kids who got their start in the government-subsidized Picasso Cafe went on to find jobs in the restaurant industry.

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