How Cooking Is Helping These Low-Income Girls Take Charge Of Their Lives

Photo: Erica Gannett.
Anyone who’s ever tried to make a Bolognese sauce or chicken Marsala from scratch knows how rewarding it is to successfully pull off a delicious home-cooked meal.
But for those who don’t necessarily have a home to cook in, the experience can be even more powerful.
On Thursday, a group of 17 girls gathered at Brooklyn Kitchen in New York City to learn how to cook a healthy, delicious meal. The class brought girls together from Win, a women and family homeless services provider and advocacy organization that runs a summer program for children called Camp Win, and Petals-N-Belles, a “social development organization that empowers girls with creative workshops, real-world experiences, and academic coaching."
"If I wasn't in Petals-N-Belles, going to a pasta class isn't something that I would be thinking about doing on a regular day like this," Lela, a 15-year-old Petals-N-Belles member, said. "It's fun. Cooking requires a lot of skill and precision, and you need your full attention."
The organizations are coming together with events designed to inspire and encourage girls with limited opportunities — including some who are homeless — to dream beyond their circumstances. Girls from Win were invited to participate in a series of Thursday workshops included in Petals-N-Bells Summer Program, including “The Making of a Chef.”
“A lot of our girls are in and out of shelters, living in New York City public housing, in overcrowded homes,” Damali Elliott, the founder of Petals-N-Belles, told Refinery29. "By no means does that mean they’re not coming from a loving, caring, supportive family, but that these families are all in need and don’t have the resources to really provide for their children in ways that the middle- and upper-middle-class and wealthy class has the opportunities [to do]."
Four of the 17 girls participating in the Petals-N-Belles cooking class were from Win, according to Elliott. She said that the partnership with Win was born after one of the girls in her own program confided to her that she was homeless and living in a shelter.
“What really shocked me with that is that this young lady has always been a champion for the other girls,” Elliott said. “So, to find out that that was her circumstance, it was actually a shock, because I thought she was perfectly fine based on how she showed up and interacted with everyone.”
The events, crafted and funded by Petals-N-Belles, are based partly on new experiences, partly on education, and partly on what the girls can get out of it. The activities all have an element of teamwork and community, but also of educating girls on life skills and attitudes that will help them as they grow. Last week, they attended a trapeze class, and next week there's a TED Talk scheduled.
On this week’s menu? Homemade pasta with tomato sauce and pesto made from scratch. In addition to learning how to cook, the girls engaged in an enthusiastic discussion on healthy nutrition and the difference between mindful eating and dieting.
“I want girls to own their voices," Elliott said. "Their power begins and ends with them, and where they are is not a determining factor to where they’re going in life.”
Ahead, see inspiring photos of girls taking charge of their lives, their learning — and most importantly — their lunch.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the relationship between Win and Petals-N-Belles, as well as Petals-N-Belles' role in hosting the class. It also incorrectly identified a participant named Kiara as being a part of Win. Refinery29 regrets the errors.

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