We’ve all heard the saying “food feeds the soul,” but it holds new meaning when you meet Justina, the new Food Service Coordinator at Covenant House New York. Justina has spent the last 15 years nourishing the souls of some of our community’s most vulnerable in hospitals, shelters, and detention centers.
“Just because this is the setting that we’re in, doesn’t mean that low quality food has to be presented to us,” she says.
There is a negative connotation associated with food served at hospitals, jails, shelters, and community centers. There’s an incorrect assumption that when people are experiencing hardship or navigating a traumatic situation, providing them with any food is adequate.
Justina believes that when someone is at their most vulnerable, that is when they should be met with the greatest love and care. There are many ways you can show a stranger that they matter to you – one of the most personable ways is through a well-cooked meal.
“No matter where you’re from, there are ingredients used across cultures that connect us to one another, the dishes may be different, but the flavors can be found around the world,” Justina optimistically notes.
Justina began her culinary exploration in high school when she connected with Careers through Culinary Arts Program (CCAP). Justina soon realized she was at home in the kitchen and her experience through CCAP motivated her to pursue a career in the culinary arts.
“I spent the next 10 years teaching culinary classes to inner city youth,” Justina mentions, fondly recalling her time at the Sylvia Center, a local nonprofit that partners with community-based organizations, schools, and local businesses to deliver nutrition-focused culinary programming in New York City. A pinnacle of her experience at the Sylvia Center was piloting a program that trains teenagers to teach culinary classes to younger children in summer camps.
Justina also spent six years working with youth living in a juvenile detention center and five years working as a nutritionist at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“During that time, I also worked with Alliance for Positive Change; they support people living with HIV, experiencing chronic homelessness, and burdened from food insecurity.”
Throughout her first two months at CHNY, Justina has been met with appreciation and honesty. “Young people are some of the toughest critics because they don’t hesitate to share their opinions. This is something I’ve become accustomed to throughout my career and view it as a positive,” she says. “It’s much easier to make adjustments to the meals we serve if we have a clear understanding of what our young people like to eat.”
At the end of the day, the goal is to provide nutrient-rich meals that youth want to eat, so their honest opinion is invaluable.
“Plus when you get positive feedback it feels really good,” Justina says, “because you know they genuinely mean it!”
The new kitchen and dining hall at CHNY provide Justina and her team with flexibility they otherwise would not have. The large space gives them the opportunity to diversify the menu daily and serve multiple options at the same time.
“The new kitchen is more technologically advanced than any I’ve ever worked in and the user-friendly space creates an adaptable environment for us to explore more avenues for what we produce in the kitchen,” says Justina.
There are many plans in the works, and something Justina and the kitchen staff are especially keen to improve is the overall dining experience. They want to create a space that young people look forward to coming to every day.
“Many young people grab their meals and go rather than sit down and eat with their peers,” Justina explains. “I want shared meals to become a part of their daily routine.”
Justina and her team have been brainstorming new ideas. Theme nights – Taco Tuesday, Wings Wednesday, and Pasta Sunday – to name a few.
“We’ve found this a great way to excite our young people about dinner service and provide some routine to their week,” she says.
Themed nights also help engage the kitchen staff. “Isiah makes the best wings so I always make sure he’s scheduled to work Wednesdays whereas Alberto whips up delicious eggs so I always know he should be working in the morning.” Justina points out, “People produce the best food when they are preparing what they love to cook. Not only will my team enjoy their day more, the youth will taste a difference in the meals they are served.”
When asked what she loves to cook, Justina smiles. “Burgers. I can eat a cheeseburger every day and never get sick of it.”