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Social Enterprises Tap Power of Food for Local Employment

Written by Amanda Maher

Traditionally, communities have relied on food banks and soup kitchens to address issues of homelessness and poverty among the lowest-income residents. While these efforts provide day-by-day sustenance for vulnerable residents, they do not begin to address the root causes of poverty.

Increasingly, cities are opening shared commercial kitchen spaces or food incubators in order to spark entrepreneurship in lower-income communities. For instance, the nonprofit La Cocina opened in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2005 with the intention of helping low-income, minority and immigrant women – many of whom were already producing their goods out of their homes – move their business from the informal to formal economy. In Boston, CropCircle Kitchen has been churning business after business out of its Jamaica Plain incubator since 2008. More than 200 jobs have been created by CropCircle companies since then.

What has seemingly fallen under the radar, however, are social enterprises that provide hands-on training and employment opportunities for low-income and often hard-to-hire residents. Programs at Boston’s Haley House Bakery Cafe, D.C.’s So Others Might Eat and Seattle’s Catalyst Kitchens all begin to address the systemic challenges that have prevented inner city residents from rising out of poverty.

The Haley House dates back to the mid-1960s when founder Katherine McKenna and her husband opened their home to homeless men in the South End neighborhood. The Haley House has since matured into a well-established soup kitchen and nonprofit organization that offers a variety of programs to low-income residents. While the fortune of the South End neighborhood and its residents has improved tremendously over the past several decades, the Haley House soup kitchen serves as a reminder to affluent residents that low-income residents still live among them, and need community support.

One of those much-needed supports is access to job training. Haley House launched a Bakery Training Program for homeless men in order to teach them baking and business skills. Food produced through the Bakery Training Program was then served to soup kitchen guests. The program ran for a decade at the South End location before Haley House took the bold step to open a separate Bakery Café in Boston’s Dudley Square, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston.

Now, the Bakery Café serves almost like a community center in an otherwise underserved area. The six-month Transitional Employment Program teaches recently incarcerated men the skills needed to succeed in the workforce and then connects graduates with full-time employment. A Take Back the Kitchen program was designed to address diet-related health problems that plague residents in the Dudley Square neighborhood. Another program brings local students with deep emotional and behavioral issues into the Café to impart kitchen skills and nutritional information. In an area that once lacked access to nutritious food, Haley House fills a gap—and does so while providing much needed workforce training and a sense of community to local residents.

Meanwhile, Catalyst Kitchen blends workforce training with wrap-around support such as temporary housing, mental and health addiction services and transportation stipends in order to ensure that program participants are successful in the training program. Catalyst Kitchen is the umbrella under which 40 other similar culinary programs have been lunched.  Its roots date back to 1992 when Seattle chef and entrepreneur David Lee saw a need to provide nutritious meals to low-income residents, as well as helping these residents become self-sufficient. He then launched Seattle-based FareStart, the first of the Catalyst Kitchens. More than 1,300 students have graduated from FareStart’s Adult Culinary Program and Barista Training & Education Program. Students prepare meals for homeless shelters, senior citizen facilities and low-income day care centers. In any given year, FareStart prepares upwards of 600,000 meals. The growing Catalyst Kitchen network is on pace to produce 10,000,000 meals in 2015.

Much like Haley House, Washington D.C.-based So Others Might Eat (SOME) began as a soup kitchen that served hungry and homeless people. But unlike Haley House and Catalyst Kitchen, SOME’s workforce training branches out beyond the food industry. SOME’s dining room serves as the front door to SOME’s broader workforce training efforts, which use an industry-specific model to lift people out of poverty and into living wage positions. SOME’s Center for Employment Training (CET) uses hard-skill training to prepare clients for an upward career trajectory. Students of CET train for industry-recognized certificates such as Medical Administrative Assistance, Building Maintenance Service Technician and Electronic Health Records. All trainees work with CET staff to brush up on reading and writing skills, as well as preparing for their job search through resume building and mock interviews. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, CET graduated 106 students with an average starting wage of $12.95 per hour.

Each of these social enterprises have found that the convening power of food can be utilized to have a meaningful, lasting impact on inner city residents’ lives. While food incubators are beneficial for serving those with an entrepreneurial spirit, owning and operating a business isn’t for everyone. Hard-skill training provides access to well-paying jobs in industries that offer upward mobility—a feat that urban residents often struggle to achieve. ICIC research indicates that food-related jobs have low barriers to entry and are often a match for inner city resident skill-sets. Thus training that includes hard-skills can prove an effective tool for helping inner city residents realize important income gains.

And for the owners and operators of these programs: they’re once again proving that businesses can do well (for their bottom line) while doing right (by others).

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