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"We Need Bread": Teaching Virtual Culinary Classes Amid a Pandemic

The request was simple, the need heart-breaking.

“Can we move up the bread chapter? We need bread.”

That’s the question students asked Chef and Culinary Arts Instructor Daniela Abel as they pursued adult education in Zaman International’s Building Ongoing Opportunities through Skills Training (BOOST) program.

Chef Abel, of course, switched up the curriculum to meet the need just like Zaman pivoted to  virtual learning when COVID-19 hit Michigan in March and the Governor issued the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order.

“When COVID-19 surged there wasn’t bread on the store shelves, and there was a lot of desperation and increased food insecurity across the board,” said Chef Abel, a veteran of the restaurant industry who now teaches the free of charge culinary arts classes. Her students are marginalized adult women facing extreme poverty, many of whom are members of immigrant and refugee communities.

Led by registered transcultural nurse Najah Bazzy, Zaman had been planning for the eventual shutdown weeks in advance. When the executive order came, it quickly transitioned BOOST’s vocational and literacy classes to virtual platforms while its social workers managed their caseloads by phone.

Chef Abel turned to Facebook Live, demonstrating the cooking techniques from her home kitchen as the 11 women enrolled followed along on their smart phones, often revisiting lessons once a paraprofessional added notes in Arabic to the video.

In switching to virtual lessons, Zaman still provided the basic supplies needed to participate such as a good set of knives and gift cards to purchase the food items. In some cases, staff provided home delivery to those without transportation.

The transition also reintroduced other challenges serving an impoverished population. A lack of a stove or microwave, for instance, something Zaman would normally provide for in-person instruction via its state-of-the-art commercial kitchen inside its Hope for Humanity facility in Inkster.

“We went raiding the facility for everything we could find, from plug-in skillets to heating plates to crockpots, anything they could cook on,” Chef Abel said. “One student sent a photo of her children smiling around the panini maker we provided which allowed them to have heated sandwiches. Such a simple thing brought so much joy and made such a big difference."

Despite the obstacles, the program succeeded with the students completing the coursework. One student used her newly acquired training to land a job at a local restaurant, earning a higher starting wage.

“It was really a lesson of adaptive leadership and making the impossible, possible,” said Gigi Salka, who serves as director of BOOST and managed the transition to virtual learning. “We have a lot to build on heading into the fall.”

Zaman is applying the lessons it learned in the spring to improve the experience for its fall programming, which it again intends to conduct virtually.

It will switch from Facebook Live to Google Classroom and loan students Chromebooks which will help centralize the curriculum and ensure better monitoring and communication. It will also provide start-up kits up front filled with basic spices, oils and cooking supplies needed to complete the coursework.

Similar steps will be incorporated to accommodate BOOST’s commercial sewing, literacy and English as a second language classes.


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