Create Common Good By Alan Minskoff • Photos by Alex Couey

Finding Purpose Through Food

The rhythm of chopping, the aromas of cooking and the gentle prodding of an instructor can be heard in the distance. Hard at work in an industrial building on Boise's Federal Way, trainees of Create Common Good are being taught about food preparation as part of a unique culinary education program. Behind the nondescript facade, refugees without resumes and with varying levels of English, learn the universal language of the kitchen. Philosophically the mission of this non-profit is to offer skills to anyone with a barrier to employment. Whether a refugee at risk or just someone needing a chance, here is a place of hope and opportunity.

Create Common Good (CCG) focuses on food. The organization farms three acres adjacent to Eastwind Church in Surprise Valley. The land donated by Idaho Power is on loan from the church. The CCG farm literally makes the high desert bloom with vegetables and fruit. It is managed by Jen Hurt, who oversees it, and Brett Pike, who studied soil science but "was incarcerated for growing marijuana," so has the needed skill set, but faces employment challenges. He deals with the acidity of the soil at the sun-soaked site. The farm operates as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise, where members pay a fee and pick up a remarkable variety of produce – cucumbers, heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, six kinds of carrots (including purple), three kinds of beets, and much more – that is also sold at farmstands and at wholesale. Farm hands from as far away as Bhutan tend the rows and crops and epitomize the organizational goal of providing a gateway to employment.

Tara Russell, the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the organization, started Create Common Good five years ago with no resources or staff. Russell, a Midwesterner who grew up in a home where all the meals were made from scratch, approaches food from many different angles, using food and farming to drive the Create Common Good mission. While the trainees do receive some language lessons and tutoring, what they learn is a skill that is immediately useful. On any given day their talents are on display and companies ranging from Whole Foods to Flatbread Community Oven have CCG alums working for them. Russell's corporate background in the United States and Asia led her to believe that building skills focusing on food – from farm to table – could get willing workers hired. Approximately a thousand volunteers and more than a dozen corporate and public partners annually support her mission.

About one-third of all adult refugees coming into Idaho have gone through the six-week program. Create Common Good places 95 percent of the trainees, overwhelmingly refugees, who have completed the program in the workforce. According to community engagement director Neva Geisler, "trainees have often been through unimaginable things," life in refugee camps, family dissolution, and oppression. Create Common Good exists for those who arrive in Boise without resources or English language skills. Here they find a common experience in food preparation, production and cooking that transcends language.

Katie Painter, the Refugee Agriculture Coordinator for Global Gardens, a program run by the Idaho Office for Refugees that teaches refugees to start their own farming businesses, says that Create Common Good expands the options available to refugees and others in need. "They fill a very good niche in providing job training for folks who have passed the 8 months of assistance that they get from government funded resettlement programs," says Painter.

Once housed in the basement of the Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise's north end, CCG's new approximately 4,000 square foot facility gleams with state-of-the-art kitchen equipment. Under the careful tutelage of award-winning Australian chef, Brent Southcombe, trainees learn by doing.

CCG continues to expand rapidly. Southcombe states the new kitchen can serve "thousands of meals" and evidence of this growth are partnerships with charter schools, corporate cafeterias and restaurants. Recently, as part of its commitment to people at risk, CCG has begun a relationship with the Women's and Children's Center.

The familial atmosphere at CCG belies the seriousness of this nonprofit organization. In using food to teach life skills Create Common Good succeeds in empowering its clients and presenting opportunities in a new light.