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Taproot Kitchen works toward catering business for people with intellectual disabilities

by on August 01, 2017 10:22 AM

Tucked away off South Atherton Street in State College is a meticulously planted garden. Designed by a local permaculture expert — Jackie Bonomo — every plant has a purpose. Some ward off harmful insects; others attract the right ones for pollination. There’s a smaller garden-within-the-garden catering to the butterfly population, some very healthy-looking tomato plants, and an innovative asparagus patch (it’s been built using discarded concrete from manufacturing molds). Furthest from the street is a series of raised beds, and a chicken coop.

The little spot of sustainable agriculture heaven is worthy of note just as it is, but its overarching purpose is far more impressive
than its existence alone. A project of Taproot Kitchen, the plot of land serves a very underserved and often overlooked group within our community — young adults with intellectual disabilities.

Taproot Kitchen cofounders Sharon Schafer and Anne Rohan, both mothers of children with disabilities, say the State College Area School District does a tremendous job of involving and educating intellectually disabled children. But once they hit 21, there are few resources available, whether for socialization, job development, or education in general. Few are able to find employment, and those who do generally find their work unfulfilling.

“[After graduating], there are a large amount of people who just sit at home,” says Rohan. “You go from this
full inclusion to just being very isolated.” She points out how this leads to not only depression, but also health issues such as obesity.

Knowing their children would shortly be coming upon this stage in their lives, Schafer and Rohan joined to form a solution, and Taproot Kitchen was born. It began operating in 2015.

“This period of their lives is where the energy needs to be put right now,” says Schafer. “Our goal was really to connect them to the community. We know when they can be demonstrating to the community what they’re capable of, there’ll be more employers willing to try to give them a job. People will accept them more as neighbors and equal members of the community. Sometimes employers just don’t really know how to employ them.”

Taproot Kitchen’s tagline is “Everybody has a place at the table,” and the organization certainly exemplifies its motto. Its goals are three-pronged: looking to offer community engagement through the local food systems, vocational training, and even employment opportunities in the future, through its catering business, which is currently in the works.

All three goals, Schafer says, are connected to the overarching theme of giving young adults with intellectual disabilities a vital role within the community, and a place to call their own.

In Taproot’s few years of existence, it has begun involving its members in the community through a series of dinners, where the participants cook and serve their guests; they source foods from their own gardens and also local agricultural producers. They’ve even catered several events around town.

“Instead of always looking at our guys as the ones who need to be served, [we’re] going out into our community and being the ones who serve,” says Rohan. “[We] go out to the CSA and we help them with the harvest and we help cater meals for other nonprofits.”

Diners are treated to a fantastic, professional experience, and that’s something both co-founders agree they wanted from the beginning.

“One of the things we talked about when we started doing dinners was that we didn’t want the focus to be on disability. … We wanted people to come to our dinners and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that was a good dinner! Wait, who cooked it?’” adds Rohan.

Taproot Kitchen is making its presence in the community known in other ways as well, as it partners with various individuals and businesses around State College to combine resources.

Schafer and Rohan note that it may be the first time many community members have worked with individuals with disabilities, and they can be surprised by the unique energy level found within Taproot Kitchen. They also recognize the high level of receptiveness they’ve found in Centre County, with people open to their ideas and interested in innovative social ventures revolving around raising people up and bringing them together, to form a community fabric.

One of these receptive organizations is the Community Supported Agriculture farm Plowshare Produce, which has watched Taproot Kitchen “go from just a dream to reality.”

“In the past year or two, groups from Taproot have come out when we have gleaning opportunities,” says Micah Schonberg, 
co-owner of Plowshare. “When we harvest potatoes, for instance, and there are lots of potatoes with cosmetic blemishes, Taproot can use those seconds for their catering projects. … This season especially, crews from Taproot have been coming regularly on Wednesday mornings to help in any way they can. We have benefited tremendously from their help harvesting carrots [and] beets, and with some gleaning and weeding projects.”

Schonberg adds that he feels the Taproot Kitchen “vision addresses a real need in our community in a creative and practical way,” and he and his wife, Beth, are eager to be a part of the project as it continues to grow.

Other community partners have included professional culinary providers, who are volunteering their time and skills to teach young adults talents such as pasta-making and baking from scratch.

One of these partners is Tony Sapia of Gemelli Bakers, who says “it’s been absolutely wonderful working with them and getting these young adults … out in the workforce. Once you engage the hands, the mind follows … and [they] do an awesome job.”

Sapia was one of several connections Taproot Kitchen found through Dr. U.B. Bakker, chairman for the
Town & Gown International Leadership & Partnership Development Foundation, who’s taken on an advisory role for the group.

“I met … the co-leaders of Taproot Kitchen three years back at a gathering of community activists and leaders and found out what they were doing briefly,” recounts Bakker.

“I started getting to know them and started advising them to develop what I call a friend-raising program, where we would go out and look for appropriate and prominent members of our community in State College and at Penn State to find out if they have resources that could be matched with the needs of Taproot Kitchen clientele.”

Bakker continues to assist Taproot Kitchen with its goals.

“The ultimate goals are … providing [members] skills that would enable them to become a productive and a professional member of our community. … We’re trying to work with the director of culinary programs at our medical center here at Mount Nittany, eventually [for the members] to provide volunteer help in their kitchen and, if they qualify, get part-time jobs.”

“I found out in Istanbul, Turkey, there is a similar group and they have just opened up a Down syndrome coffee house, so I brought this to our group and I told them if we continued to improve our skill levels and put together several fundraising dinners, we will have enough money to fly and visit that group, or invite them to come visit with us here, so that we could have international connections, understanding, and support. They loved that idea!”

Bakker notes that these developments may be further down the road, as much as five or more years.

The group participated in a Farm Fresh Milkshakes fundraiser at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in July and will do so again at the upcoming Grange Fair, serving and selling the milkshakes that have been a much-loved treat at the Pennsylvania Farm Show for decades. The opportunity was facilitated in part by Ryan Herr, who first became involved with Taproot Kitchen as a Penn State student, conducting a project for a class on food systems.

“Taproot Kitchen was the perfect combination for me,” Herr says, “because it had to do with cooking, which is something I’ve always loved to do, and working with young adults with intellectual disabilities, and that’s something that I did in high school.”

He hints at the possibility of Taproot Kitchen making an appearance alongside Farm Fresh Milkshakes at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January.

Schafer and Rohan are also on track to finish remodeling Taproot’s physical kitchen, located just down the street from the garden, inside the Meetinghouse on Atherton. The remodels are a part of their larger goal to begin monetizing and expanding their catering jobs.

“Right now we do a lot of catering, but we do it for donations,” says Schafer. “So it’s word-of-mouth kind of, but we won Brand[Aid]. They’re catapulting us, so we need to be ready. We’re working toward [the renovations], but I hope we can be up and running with all the certifications in a few months.”

The local Brand[Aid] is an initiative from Central Pennsylvania Creative Professionals — [CP]2— and brings together dozens of creative professionals to help a local nonprofit. The benefits include marketing and branding help, which Taproot Kitchen has been using to further focus its goals, update its website, and create branded materials.

Additionally, event appearances alongside community partners are slated for the remainder of the year.

“Probably this fall, we’ll do one with the Barn at Lemont,” notes Schafer. “They want to do a harvest thing, and that will probably coincide with the Fall into Vegetables campaign, which is with Centre Moves, and then after that we have some ideas. We’re going to partner with Global Connections, and they do regular international dinners. We don’t know how extensive that partnership will be yet.”

Regardless of how Taproot Kitchen expands or changes, though, one thing will always stay the same.

“What we always aimed to be, even from the very beginning, is to be here for everybody,” Rohan says. “We want to be in a position where we can help people become entrepreneurs and learn job skills, and employ people through the catering company … to help everybody in some way, shape, or form get involved in the community.”

Want to help Taproot Kitchen achieve its goals? Volunteers are needed in the coming months for assistance with garden projects, the kitchen renovations, and event planning. Reach out to Schafer and Rohan at  hello@taprootkitchen.org.

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.



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