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Social Activism Never Tasted So Good: Three Local Restaurants Educate and Enhance the Community

Taylor Alexander brings lunch to a table.

Soup is served up at the Osage Cafe.

Women cook on the link at the Osage Cafe.

Waitress Taylor Alexander puts in a food order.

Waitress Taylor Alexander takes a table's lunch order at the Osage Cafe.

Taylor Alexander prepares drinks for a table.

Using the food industry as means for education, three local nonprofits -- Osage CafePizza Fusion Denver and Cafe Options -- are empowering Denver by giving disadvantaged individuals the tools necessary to prosper in their personal and professional lives and, subsequently, helping them become contributing members of the community.
"You are what you eat," or at least that is how the old saying goes. Though, what if food not only enriched your physical health, but enriched the lives of others as well? That's the concept that three local nonprofits have employed in their latest food-centric endeavors. Using the food industry as means for education, these organizations are empowering Denver by giving disadvantaged locals the tools necessary to prosper in their personal and professional lives and, subsequently, helping them become contributing members of the community.
Osage CaféTaylor Alexander brings lunch to a table.
Tucked into the artistic, urban Mariposa neighborhood, Osage Café is a quaint place to grab a midweek breakfast or lunch. A product of the Denver Housing Authority's (DHA) department focused on resident relations, Osage Café is much more than a local restaurant. The first of its kind in the country, it's a training ground for at-risk youths to gain on-the-job experience in the food industry, as well as a place for them to learn about healthy, stable living.
Lynne Picard, Senior Program Manager at DHA, helped conceive and bring the Café to life. She says it started as a casual conversation between herself, Damien McIntyre (Human Services Program Specialist), and Annie Dowding (Osage Café Manger). They wondered, "How do we continue to promote healthy eating and living...while staying true to our mission and being able to flow with the market?" Thus, the vision of Osage Café materialized and, in February 2013, the dream became an actualization when it opened its doors.
Picard describes the program as a "career exploration," explaining that the Café exposes adolescents to many facets of the food and hospitality industries. Broken down into three training areas, participants learn dish washing, front-of-house skills, and back-of-house duties like being a line cook. Prior to starting, each individual goes through a six-week prep academy. 
Nineteen-year-old Taylor Alexander has been with Osage Café from the beginning. She wants to be a flight attendant and says working in the Café has helped her develop her face-to-face, customer-relations skills. "My favorite part about working here is being in the front because I like to deal with the customers," says Alexander.
The Housing Authority of Los Angeles County (LACDC) has taken note and is interested in re-creating its own iteration of Café Osage. Picard is happy to share this process with others because she sees how the concept can impact communities greatly. "There's no reason to reinvent the wheel," she says, especially when it's working.
Pizza Fusion Denver
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) has over 40 community programs, offering services like housing, healthcare, family support, and substance abuse treatment. In September 2010, the organization expanded on this outreach and purchased Pizza Fusion, an eco-conscious pizza franchise based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to turn into a job training facility. On May 15, 2011, Pizza Fusion Denver opened for business in Capitol Hill.
Fifteen of the 18 employees at Pizza Fusion are CCH clients. For 10 to 16 months, they experience "on-the-job" training that involves them in all aspects of the restaurant business, including kitchen and food-prep skills, customer service, and essential business operations. Since its inception, 24 employees have completed the program and moved successfully on to other jobs. 
"The mission of the [CCH] is to find lasting solutions to end homelessness and to help our clients build independent lives," says Pizza Fusion Denver General Manager Mary Putnam. She asserts that the program at Pizza Fusion helps establish this independence through education on how to be successful in the workforce. 
Yet, the initiative's efforts don't end at creating sustainable lifestyles for its clients. Pizza Fusion Denver's mission is three-pronged, with environmental and health elements weaved into the social goals. Housed in a LEED-certified building, the restaurant operates in an eco-friendly fashion by recycling, composting, using energy-efficient equipment, and supporting local growers and venders of organic, antibiotic-free, non-GMO produce, meats and cheeses.
Having been in the restaurant industry for over three decades, Putnam is a believer in the program. She has witnessed food effectively bring a community together, adding, "Food as nurturance, education, health, connection, common experience, and independence is powerful and we are honored to offer that to our clients and to our customers."
Soup is served up at the Osage Cafe. Café Options
Helping underprivileged women achieve a stable lifestyle, Work Options for Women (WOW) strives to ameliorate poverty through programs focused on workforce skills and self-reliance. Catherine Henry, who has been involved with WOW for seven years, started as a volunteer and eventually became a member of the board. Then, in 2009 with the opening of Café Options, Henry transitioned into the Executive Director role. 
A causal eatery that serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, Café Options provides hands-on kitchen experience for needy women with a desire to work. Half of Café Options workers start the program while on welfare.

According to Henry, the idea is to get them back on their feet. She describes the program as a "holistic approach" because it teaches job-readiness skills in addition to culinary techniques and participants spend one-on-one time with a case management, learning about making good life decisions. "We help them take that first step to becoming an integral part of the community again," she explains.
Describing the motivation for opening Café Options as "twofold," Henry says the goals were to both boost the organization's capacity so it could help more women and increase awareness about WOW's programs. With its sophisticated ambience and Downtown setting, she says the Café puts WOW's name out in the community in a "convenient way." Additionally, 100 percent of the proceeds go back to WOW, further fostering the organization's philanthropic ventures.
In 2011, 25 individuals 'graduated' into new employment and, in 2012 that number more than doubled to 63. With their new skills, graduates have stayed to work at Café Options or gone on to other stable employment. Others have tapped into an entrepreneurial spirit, carving out their own niche in the culinary arts.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Stephanie Wolf.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Stephanie has spent the past 12 years living out her dreams as a professional ballet dancer. In conjunction with her performing career, she's developed a varied writing portfolio.
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