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Shanita McAfee-Bryant: Focus on Food, Culinary Education and Culinary Access

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 38 million Americans, which includes 6.1 million children, are food insecure due to a broken food system. Estimates are about 400,000 Kansas Citians fall into that category. But now underserved residents have a powerhouse in their corner, pushing hard to drive down those numbers in our metro.

Executive Chef Shanita McAfee-Bryant is the director and founder of The Prospect KC, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing and eliminating food insecurity. She is a 2013 winner of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and local restaurateur, and now she’s working hard to find solutions through this nonprofit organization.

“The food insecure, underemployed and misrepresented are the forgotten. Our mission is to uplift them with hope for a better future,” shared Shanita. “Most people don’t think about food insecurity. But can you imagine working in a restaurant and you can’t eat? That’s your major issue: How can you feed yourself or your family? Many people are forced to treat food like a luxury item.”

The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Hunger and food insecurity are closely related but different. Hunger refers to a personal, physical feeling of discomfort, while food insecurity denotes a lack of financial resources for food at the household level.

Cooking up a Chef
Shanita’s passion for food started at 13, when she created a homemade crust for an apple pie. At 17 and with a new baby, she trained at the Culinary Institute at Johnson County Community College. Shanita came from a strong family of entrepreneurs; her father built an impressive janitorial service company with more than 300 employees. She was fortunate to have such a strong foundation, but not everyone comes from a thriving, successful environment. That’s why she believes The Prospect KC can open doors for those looking for a way to break through to success.

She explains that The Prospect KC is a social enterprise to support individuals of disenfranchised communities with nutritional education, kitchen culinary training and culinary entrepreneurship support. She’s driven by the belief that people are capable of building a career if they have access to the opportunity.

“We don’t train you in the kitchen and send you on your way. We train you for eight or sixteen weeks but you have a career coach and a self-improvement class. You’ve got case management or social work if that’s what you need. You can stay for a year or more, however long you need to get you on your feet and be supported,” promised Shanita. “This is not the kind of program that you’ve got squares and you have to fit in the square. It’s a two-way relationship; that’s why we use the word ‘prospect.’ We’re trying to flip that word and give it a more positive meaning. We’re trying to eliminate barriers so there’s no time limit and it’s based on the individual’s present needs.”

One of those barriers is lack of representation. Many talented black chefs and chefs of color working in the culinary industry face challenges because they do not see chefs in upper management that look like them. This can create an environment with no safe space for career advice and mentorship. However, Shanita taps into a national network of chefs of color to provide her students with mentor chefs.

16-Week Culinary Training
The Prospect KC emphasizes social equality through its focus on food, culinary education and culinary access. Shanita is looking for those interested in becoming chefs and wanting to learn the fundamentals of cooking. Entrepreneurs that desire to open their own restaurant are assisted through an introductory course. Students receive progressive, on-the-job training, classroom preparation and support wraparound services to develop the business solutions students can use on their own or as part of a team before launching into entrepreneurship full time.

“We have an entrepreneurship component and that’s something that not all of the other schools have,” she remarked. “It’s important that when you look at the pandemic, you have some recession proofing and pandemic proofing with these types of businesses.”

All training will take root in a busy café, giving individuals hands-on practice in the restaurant business. This environment nurtures self-sufficiency, commitment, consistency, self-awareness, productivity and growth in its students. The Prospect KC Urban Eatery will produce high-quality meals to feed the Kansas City metro’s under-resourced populations.

“We’ll begin taking culinary students in February. Our coffee shop and building will open in the spring. We’ll have baked goods, sandwiches and a separate food concept in another area of the building built on students’ interest. We’ll work with the students, and they’ll have a lot of input into the type of restaurant they want to operate,” noted Shanita. “This is not a program where we come together and talk in a classroom all day. Yes, we have some instructional learnings, financial information and other soft skills that we definitely have to reinforce, but the majority of learning happens in the kitchen.”

Shanita eagerly shares that her “prospects” are capable, talented and enthusiastic about overcoming barriers to success. She believes no one should go hungry or be denied the opportunity for self-determination because of hunger. While creating meals is central to the mission of The Prospect KC, she also points out other opportunities for her students. “There are some different food careers that people of color don’t know about. You can get into food writing, recipe testing, food blogging, food photography, food styling,” she commented. “Many times, people of color are pushed into being a line cook, but there are many other ways to make money.”

Cooking up a Success
During her culinary career, Shanita relied heavily on her father for business guidance, experience and knowledge. However, in 2019, he passed away and Shanita lost her biggest supporter. But in her darkness, she found an answer by directing her energies to help others break out of their cycle of poverty and underemployment. She became involved with FareStart, award-winning restaurants focused on fine food and community mission. Its job training programs in the food service industry help alleviate poverty, hunger and homelessness in many communities and ensure culinary students receive real-world job experience.

“In 2014, I went to Seattle to cook for a United Negro College fundraising event, and the FareStart Kitchen was the one they reserved for us to cook. And then I went back about four or five times and saw how it worked. It planted a seed in me,” Shanita recalled. “All of the prior years I didn’t think I would do this, but after my dad passed away in 2019, I did some consulting and thought about my next steps in life. I wanted to honor my dad’s legacy and be true to the passion that I have for cooking and support my community. And this is where we are.”

An initiative of FareStart is Catalyst Kitchens, which was established to help design, launch, sustain and grow food service job training and social enterprises across North America. Catalyst Kitchens started over 25 years ago by offering education and employment opportunities for established restaurants in neighborhoods across America. They’re looking at ways to grow their business or provide more services within their communities while also supporting those same areas economically by hiring locals. The goal is to provide practical work and life skills learned through apprenticeships, giving graduates an opportunity for employment.

“I went to Catalyst Kitchen for another event and cooked for another nonprofit and saw their work. It planted a seed and I asked if they did this in other cities, and then we started our program,” she stated. “They have a model to follow and tell you the partnerships that you need. You find that synergy and mission in life and put yourself with those people.”

For those contemplating reaching beyond their current status with an eye on helping others, Shanita offers this advice for starting a nonprofit. “Find out if there’s somebody you can partner with before you start. This program is a success because of the partnership. Too many times people don’t test out the market and see if others are doing it too,” she advised. “There’s synergy in collaboration. You can serve more people and have access to more funding if you can find others to bring along with you.”

As she nears the opening of the The Prospect KC, Shanita is thrilled with the positivity that this program can bring to KC and the opportunities that will be available to those of color. She shares that taking this giant leap of faith was all about establishing a deep conviction.

“You’ve got to trust the process,” she said. “I didn’t know I was going to Seattle to cook at FareStart. I didn’t know that I would join the Catalyst member network and bring this incredible program to Kansas City. That was not in my life at all.”