Serving Up Dreams
By Carolyn Shea
Cheryl Sesnon ’88
Food is at the heart of many of the nonprofit groups Cheryl Sesnon ’88 has steered over the last two decades, as a vehicle for providing work and skills, an enterprise solution to poverty, a fundraising tool, and the means through which relationships and community are built.
After graduating from Evergreen, Sesnon ran a catering and custom cake-making business and studied culinary arts at Seattle Central Community College, where she created a cookbook containing simple recipes for low-income people to prepare salmon. It was distributed to area food banks, bringing her in contact with Common Meals, which originally provided nutritious, quality meals to homeless shelters and disadvantaged populations in Seattle, and evolved into a culinary job training and placement program for homeless people. She volunteered for the organization, became a board member, and before long, stepped into the role of acting director.
Later renamed FareStart, the Seattle-based enterprise had an annual budget of $250,000 and was deeply in debt. “We literally tossed a coin at a board meeting to shut it down or keep it open,” she says. Sesnon was given 18 months to turn it around. She met that goal, and ended up leading the organization for the next six years. At her departure, FareStart had a budget of $2.5 million. In 2011, it won the “Humanitarian of the Year” award from the James Beard Foundation.
“We prepared 2,000 meals a day for shelters and kids in Head Start,” says Sesnon. “We had an 87 percent retention rate in the 16-week intensive program,” which helped hundreds of homeless and unemployed people get off the street and into jobs. “It turned many people’s lives around.”
A single parent, Sesnon left FareStart to spend more time with her daughter, Samantha. She earned a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership from Seattle University, and for the next few years, worked as a consultant and trainer for local, national and international nonprofits.
Today, Sesnon runs Seattle’s Jubilee Women’s Center, a FareStart partner, which provides transitional housing to more than 30 homeless women—as well as referral services, technology and life-skills training.
Sesnon just completed a yearlong term as president of the Seattle chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier, an international society of professional women involved in the food, wine and hospitality industries. Membership is by invitation only and open to those who have distinguished themselves in their fields. Les Dames raises money to provide scholarships for women going into culinary and hospitality-related careers and supports food-oriented enterprises in the community through such initiatives as Green Tables, which aims to strengthen the links between school, restaurant and kitchen tables and urban and rural farms and gardens.
“I think food and love are absolutely inseparable,” says Sesnon, who has been lauded for her accomplishments as a nonprofit leader. “Food is a way to nurture and build community. It’s really about bringing people together.”