Cooking Up Cultural Understanding

Jennifer Thornton has a soft spot for the plight of refugee women. Living and working as an expat in France for five years, she understands what it is like to be different from those around you. Jennifer is quick to admit that while her own experience was under the best of circumstances, she relied on the kindness of others to help her adjust to the nuances of a foreign culture. “That feeling is magnified for people coming from cultures that are radically different, who have experienced violence and who have spent years in refugee camps,” she says.

Earlier this year, Jennifer launched Local Abundance Kitchen, a nonprofit that merges her two passions—cooking and helping people. As a volunteer with Building Hope in the City, a local ministry that supports refugees, she had an idea. She would create a cooking outreach program to help refugee women learn language skills, become comfortable with people around them, and earn money by sharing the foods of their cultures. “It just made sense to put these women, who are passionate about their cuisine, in front of an audience and offer them an opportunity to earn good money. It seemed like such a natural way I could help them.”

Through Jennifer’s program, Fatima and Nehmat from Sudan, Lina and Rasha from Iraq, and Nicola from Zimbabwe are provided with the resources they need to teach others how to prepare the dishes of their homeland. As the women cook and instruct, they also share personal stories. “I have been working with so many inspiring and encouraging women. What profoundly impacts me is the joy and resilience they have in their situation,” she says. Jennifer is especially gratified to see class attendees volunteer to help or mentor other refugee families.

At a recent class, Fatima and Nehmat coached their students through authentic recipes, including a leg of lamb with Sudanese spices, lentil soup with a traditional bread, and a Sudanese French waffle with caramelized sugar syrup. After the lesson, teachers and students enjoyed a meal together.

Jennifer is a small business owner herself, teaching macaron-making and other classes through her own enterprise, Buttercream & Olive Oil. She sees additional opportunities for the women, helping them to find viable employment using their skills, starting their own businesses, or launching a line of specialty products. The nonprofit is in need of volunteers, cooking spaces, and financial support to underwrite the cost of ingredients. Profits from class fees go directly to the women.

To learn more, visit LocalAbundanceKitchen.org.