Via Food, Sapna NYC Assists South Asian Immigrant Women Build Professional Skills

The organization reinforces on-the-job culinary skills with financial and computer literacy classes.

This story is part of 1 Minute Meal, a documentary series that uses food to reveal the communities, legacies, dreams, realities and unseen forces that shape life in New York City.

When asked about her work to empower women, Surbhi Sahni pauses and asks if we can avoid using the word “empowerment.”

“I feel like women already have the power,” explains Sahni, a seasoned chef who has done pretty much every job in the hospitality industry, from washing dishes to being a full-time pastry chef. “I can’t give the power to them.”

This distinction shows in every step that she takes as the director of Tiffin, a one-year-old jobs development program run Sapna NYC—a non-profit organization that assist New York’s South Asian immigrant women in building the professional and cultural skills necessary for success in the United States. This program, which began with a cohort of three members meeting once a week to cook under Sahni’s instruction, has already led to two of those members to full-time employment at Whole Foods.

During their weekly shift, the members of Tiffin assemble at Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit commissary kitchen and incubator that uses food to deliver meaningful economic development. Sahni, who prior to this role rarely worked with inexperienced cooks, goes beyond cooking, making sure all of their conversations incorporate the type of professional vocabulary and workplace demands she’s known for over twenty years. These on-the-job skills are reinforced with financial and computer literacy classes, building a path to opportunities beyond a single job at a single kitchen.

As if there weren’t enough already invested in one big pot of okra, each batch of Indian food that Tiffin prepares is sent to a senior citizens’ community center via India Home. The way that the program turns this food chain into a life cycle reflects a kind of investment that no private investment firm would consider, yet feels entirely obvious to women doing the work.

© Music by Dorian Love © Photos by Donnelly Marks

Through September 1, Edible Manhattan is collaborating with Edible Brooklyn, Edible Bronx, Edible Queens, and the Staten Island Advance to debut 30 new videos about food and life in New York. Subscribe to 1 Minute Meal to see food films from all five boroughs.

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James Boo is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. As Editor-in-Chief of Real Cheap Eats, an independent filmmaker, and a freelance food writer, James has devoted his storytelling career to the intersection of food and culture. You can see more episodes of this web series at oneminutemealfilms.com.