The last 18 months have been like no other. We know that the impact of the global pandemic was different on each community. For individuals experiencing food insecurity, their world looked much different than the overworked executive who welcomed the change of pace. Working parents who were home with school-aged children had an entirely different struggle “balancing it all” compared to individuals living alone who grappled with isolation. One thing that occurred for many Americans is that we developed a love for food!
According to the JAMA Network Open, on average Americans gained two pounds monthly during the spring 2020 shelter-in-place. While we don’t endorse food as a salve for stress, uncertainty, or boredom, we know that we found food more comforting than any other time in history. And we have the elastic waistband to prove it!
At iCan Dream Center, we used this area of comfort as a connection point for our students.
iCan Dream Center is a grassroots organization founded in March 2013 to fill a gap in disability services within South Suburban Cook and Will County, Illinois. We are a therapeutic school and support students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and anxiety disorders. We specialize in serving adult students with mild to moderate disabilities, who, with tailored supports, can work competitively.
Many of the students enrolled in our post-secondary program had limited educational eligibility remaining by August 2020. When given the option, we didn’t hesitate to put the precautions in place that would allow our students to return to in-person instruction. One thing that has been a constant for the youth we serve is the consistency of a caring environment, so in-person programming was critical for our students to continue to thrive throughout the pandemic.
We incorporated a weekly Culinary Arts course into our program, several years ago, because we understand the didactic and therapeutic benefits of cooking. Even mental health pros swear by the therapeutic effects: “I see this as an incredibly effective self-care strategy. Baking and cooking can be considered a mindful activity. Cooking focuses us on the here and now, which helps reduce stress” says Chicago based clinical psychologist Dr. John Duffy. We leveraged our student’s creativity, need for immediate gratification, and longing to care for others during the height of the pandemic. We were all so uncertain about what the future would hold, but quite sure that if we followed the recipes, we could create the dishes we imagined.
Our students missed the comfort of family gatherings, so we filled our kitchen regularly with smells that reminded them of “normal” times. We doubled down when things got tough and invited students and their families to share their favorite recipes and a corresponding story. Our students had a great time replicating recipes, while enhancing their verbal expression, honing literacy skills and science acuity.
This approach was so successful that I contacted a celebrity chef and asked him to partner with us to turn our raw materials into a masterpiece. Chef Jerome Brown agreed to join our efforts and a cookbook was birthed. Read more here about the collaboration. This project is the embodiment of how iCan Dream Center thinks outside the box to ensure learners with disabilities, young people who are not quite ready to adult in the community yet, spend their days in a setting that uses innovative strategies to address their functional living skills.
The proceeds from the sale of the cookbook will be used to support vocational training for neurodiverse learners so all our students are prepared for meaningful employment and civic engagement after they leave our program at age 22. We are excited to announce that we will begin taking preorders for our cookbook in November, right in time for Giving Tuesday!