Veena Prasad immigrated to the U. S. from South India with her family in 1994, just a year before beginning college. Entering the food industry was a way to get back to her roots. She started a small business selling recipe kits that simplified cooking ethnic food at home. But while her business shared the flavors of a variety of regions, it did little to share the culture behind those recipes.
“It started with this journey towards, if I wanted to start a business on my own, what could I do and what feels meaningful to me,” Veena describes.
She didn’t just want to give people the opportunity to eat food from other countries. Veena wanted to engage them with the cooks who make the food. During a cooking club session she confided in a friend how, if she could, she’d create an organization that recognized food culture as an invaluable asset to refugees and immigrants living in Seattle.
As it turned out, that friend was a volunteer with SVP’s 2012 Fast Pitch program, and although the deadline was only two days away, they encouraged Veena to apply.
She didn’t get past the Fast Pitch quarterfinals. But in pulling together the application materials and pitching the concept for the first time, she came face-to-face with a deeper need in her life.
“I realized for myself, that getting involved in social impact was what I was missing in my work and career,” Veena says. “Thinking through the idea and pitching was incredibly powerful for me. It changed my path from what I had been doing with my for-profit food business.”
Washington has welcomed almost 33,000 refugees since 2003, ranking it 7th in the country to offer a home to those escaping war, violence, and natural disaster. Additionally, in King County, immigrants make up about 21 percent of the population. But despite growing numbers, many remain marginalized, earning far less than their native-born counterparts.
Veena saw a way to change this, and following her Fast Pitch experience, she spoke to everyone she could who had connections, a network or an idea about the refugee and immigrant communities in Seattle. Luni Libes, CEO of Fledge, was particularly encouraging.
“I was feeling very tentative and not super confident in my ability to do this, but he sat me down and said ‘this idea has legs,’” Veena says.
Energized by the encouragement and fueled by her new-found passion, Veena launched Project Feast, which brings the rich culinary traditions of refugee and immigrant communities together in one kitchen and through commercial food training, graduate-led cooking classes and catering events gives them a chance to share their heritage around a table. They advocate that the skills that come with one’s cultural background enrich the community as a whole. And with the resources and support Project Feast provides, many of the students go on to work in the food industry.
In the early days, the Fast Pitch community helped Project Feast schedule some of its first catering events, and Veena began reaching out to other organizations focused on the same communities to form partnerships, setting up community cooking events and food handler permit workshops at Lutheran Community Services Northwest in SeaTac.
By the time Fast Pitch 2013 rolled around, Project Feast was no longer just an idea. It was the real deal. And Veena honed her five-minute message to perfection – making it all the way to the Fast Pitch Finals and winning multiple awards.
The $10,000 Outerwall Award and the $10,000 Women’s Funding Alliance Award gave Project Feast the leverage they needed to start hiring. The consulting services provided by Grow 50 helped them build on their marketing efforts. The exposure throughout the event brought more catering jobs, which meant more income, and by the end of 2014, the winnings translated into expanded catering and established curriculum for their Commercial Kitchen Basics course.
To date, Project Feast has helped 150 people build culinary skills and fed more than 7,000 people through 15- to 300-person catered events with cuisine ranging from East Africa and the Middle East to Southeast Asia and Central America. But true value of the program extends far beyond food training.
“We started out thinking it was jobs, that it was an economic necessity,” Veena says. “And of course, it is. But what we didn’t realize at the beginning – that’s become extremely clear now – Is that is just one part of the equation.”
“We provide a sense of community for people. We provide a home, a place where they understand they are worthwhile individuals with something to offer the world.”
For many of the people in Project Feast’s programs, it’s not only the challenges of learning a new language or adjusting to a different lifestyle. They’re worried about family and loved ones still back home. They’re not sure how they’re going to make it here. They’re somber about the circumstances that took them away from their country. So to find a supportive community at Project Feast where they can continue their traditions with new friends is invaluable.
“Without designing for it, just through the principles of how we operate, we’ve built confidence in people,” Veena says.
For instance, one former Project Feast student is now in culinary school studying to become a pastry chef. She has plans to open a bakery with her brother one day. Two sisters who came through Project Feast’s first food training in 2013, are also developing a food business plan with hopes to formalize a project this summer.
Also this summer, Veena will launch “Project Feast 2.0,” offering more in-depth skills training and an even better launching pad for students to begin working in the culinary industry. In place of its six-week food permit training they will be adopting a four- to six-month apprenticeship program. The class will meet daily and each student receives a stipend. In addition to catering events, they will also either prepare food for wholesale or serve lunch daily. Leadership development will likewise be integrated into the program.
“What we realized was that if we tap into that leadership potential, they will go much further in their food industry careers, whether it be to advocate for themselves in their jobs or eventually start a food business,” Veena says.
Project Feast plans to pilot the new curriculum with six students. And graduates from the organization’s Commercial Kitchen Basics class, its nonprofit partners and the employers who help place students in culinary jobs following the program have shared excitement for the expansion.
“It’s been fantastic to see the arc of this startup,” Veena says. “To see the amazing growth that we’ve experienced, and to now be in a place where we’re taking things up a notch and saying we’ve learned, and want to expand.”
Cecilia Garza is SVP Seattle’s staff writer. In her free time, she enjoys sailing the Puget Sound by way of her small yet comfortable Coronado 25’ and romping the beach with her 10-pound Italian Greyhound.
Learn more about Cecilia and read more of her work here.