Written by Amanda Maher. Above: Culinary Training Program students prepare meals for Kids Cafe. Image courtesy of Hampton Roads Daily Press
Food insecurity is a chronic problem in low-income communities. During the recent recession, food insecurity increased and has stayed elevated: From 2003 to 2007, the annual number of people in food insecure households ranged from 35.1 million to 38.2 million. From 2008 to 2013, it was between 48.8 million and 50.2 million people.
Many low-income individuals have become increasingly reliant on food pantries, soup kitchens or churches for meals. At the same time, social service agencies have seen cuts to governmental budgets that provide funding for these social services.
A systemic approach is needed to address the root causes of food insecurity. Poverty is one of those causes, and helping residents find employment helps to alleviate poverty. In Cincinnati and the Virginia Peninsula, food banks are simultaneously addressing food insecurity and poverty by providing culinary training in their commercial kitchens. Through these programs, they are able to provide more food that will go to needy families, and low-income residents gain valuable skills that increase their job prospects.
Cincinnati COOKS!, a program offered by the Freestore Foodbank, is a ten-week course where students learn the mechanics of working in a commercial kitchen. Professional and life skills are integrated into the program to ensure success once graduates find a job in the private sector. The meals prepared are then used to service more than a dozen Cincinnati locations of Kids Cafe – an after-school program that includes healthy meals for school-aged children. Those who complete the ten-week course are then eligible to enroll in an additional 8-week training program that provides management education and culinary skills necessary for employment in fine dining restaurants. Often, those who complete the full 18 weeks then move on to Cincinnati State College to earn their Kitchen Management Certificate.
During the economic downturn, the Cincinnati COOKS! program enrolled students like Maranda Cox, who had been unemployed for seven months after losing her job as a mortgage underwriter. “Cooking is something I’ve always loved to do,” Cox told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “Now it’s time for me to pursue what I would really enjoy doing.” After completing the Cincinnati COOKS! training, Cox went on to receive a degree at the Midwest Culinary Institute and is working to launch a food truck that dishes up Caribbean cuisine.
Cincinnati COOKS! has gained attention—and rightly so. Since its inception in 2001, the program has graduated more than 1,100 students, and 90 percent are employed a year after graduation.
When the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank learned of the program, its management became interested in launching a similar initiative to coincide with the Foodbank’s move into a building with a larger commercial kitchen. The resulting Culinary Training Program (CTP) is similar to Cincinnati COOKS! in that students prepare meals for local Kids Cafes. The CTP is unique in that their 12-week program integrates 15 lessons from the U.S. Army’s ROTC curriculum in order to teach students critical skills in areas such as leadership, time management and professional success. CTP requires military-like discipline from its students; it is so rigorous that only half of the students make it through to graduation. However, those who do cross the finish line are highly-prepared for jobs in the food industry.
The program has been instrumental for residents like Dawn King, who graduated from CTP and found a sous chef position in a nearby NASA cafeteria. “The chef really taught me technique,” King told Virginia’s Daily Press. “We did a lot of batch cooking, and that was a learning experience. Everything is going great right now.” That batch cooking will be especially useful for King, who recently launched her own business, Chef Dawn Diva Catering Company.
And while many low-income residents benefit from this training, local families may be the greatest beneficiaries. Since CTP’s inception, the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank has been able to increase the number of Kids Cafe meals it prepares each week from 1,000 to more than 5,000. “Without this program we could not provide the meals on a weekly basis for our at-risk population,” said Jacqueline Linder, nutrition programs director at the Foodbank, in the same Daily Press article. “Our primary focus is the children. It’s all about feeding the kids and making sure they get a hot nutritious meal before going to bed at night.”
Read more about the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank’s Kids Cafe program in our latest What Works for Cities Case Study: A Virginia Food Bank’s Culinary Program Dishes Up More Meals Through Job Training.