Case Study

What Works: A Virginia Food Bank’s Culinary Program Dishes Up More Meals Through Job Training

Objective:  To highlight how a local food bank was able to expand its capacity and service levels by incorporating a job-training program for low-income residents.

Major Participants: Virginia Peninsula Foodbank; various local human service organizations and correctional facilities, including Newport News Sheriff’s Department, Hampton Division of Human Services, Newport News Housing Authority and Goodwill; various local employment partners, including Christopher Newport University, Farm Fresh Supermarkets and Colonial Williamsburg restaurants.

Background: Through a number of programs and services, the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank has provided more than 126 million meals to residents since its inception in 1986. One of these programs is called Kids Cafe. Kids Cafe is an after-school program that provides at-risk children aged five to 18 with a combination of educational and enrichment activities, as well as a healthy, well-balanced meal—meals provided by the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank. Historically, Foodbank staff and a team of volunteers prepared these Kids Cafe meals. But the Foodbank lacked a commercial kitchen, which limited the number and types of meals it could prepare. Most often, children received a bagged meal containing a cold sandwich. And as is the case with many volunteer programs, the Foodbank had to contend with volunteer attendance issues. These uncertain staffing levels strained the Foodbank’s ability to reliably deliver these meals—meals that might be the only food a child would eat that day.

In 2006, the Director of the Kids Cafe program visited Cincinnati’s Freestore Food Bank to learn about its Kids Cafe model. For Freestore’s initiative, a chef was hired to train lower-income adults in culinary skills; those program participants then prepared the Kids Cafe meals as part of their training, under the direction of a chef. This model served a dual purpose: It provided lower-income residents with the skills to move into entry-level food service positions, and it ensured that a team was readily available to make and assemble the Kids Cafe meals.

Virginia Peninsula Foodbank staff adopted a similar model in the midst of a capital campaign to fund a new commercial kitchen. As was done in Cincinnati, a chef would teach program participants culinary skills; the Foodbank added a rigorous job and life skill training component designed to help participants maintain employment in the future. In April 2011, the Foodbank moved into a new building, and it welcomed the first participants into its Culinary Training Program (CTP) the following fall.

How it Works: The 12-week CTP is a free program designed to teach low-income residents skills that will lead to sustainable employment and self-reliance. Training takes place in the Foodbank’s commercial kitchen under the supervision of a professional chef. Early on, classes cover basic culinary skills, including sanitation and food equipment recognition. Proper knife skills and food preparation techniques follow. Students learn how to prepare soups and sauces from scratch, how to bone chicken and filet fish, how to bake and decorate, and how to harvest food and use herbs from the Foodbank’s garden. As part of their training, CTP students prepare and package meals for the 27 Kids Cafes that are currently served by Virginia Peninsula Foodbank. By the end of the program, graduates take the test to receive their ServSafe Manager Certification.

This culinary training is complemented by intensive job and life skill training. CTP has adopted 15 lessons from the U.S. Army’s ROTC curriculum in order to teach students critical skills in areas such as leadership, time management, goal setting and professional success. Much of this training is conducted by Foodbank volunteers, including a number of veterans and retired military administrators. Volunteers from the business community help students with skill development such as resume creation and interview practice.

There are few formal requirements to be eligible for this free training. The process consists of a one-page application, a one-page essay, and an interview with the program director and head chef. During the interview, potential candidates are explained program guidelines and expectations – both regarding program material and behavior. A high school diploma or GED is not a prerequisite; but a person must be able to read at or above a sixth grade level and must show willingness to commit to a program that involves a major time investment. Unlike most social service programs, CTP also accepts those with criminal backgrounds, including felonies, as long as the person is not a repeated violent or sexual offender.  With a few exceptions (such as special event food preparation), training is unpaid.

Results for Local Economy: Since the program’s 2011 inception, the CTP has graduated 15 classes. Each class begins with about 12 students, and about half drop out, usually citing the program’s demands. In total, approximately 73 residents have completed training. The Foodbank has leveraged its strong relationships with local employers in order to ensure CTP graduates find employment upon program completion; as a result, more than 90 percent have found employment with local businesses. Many graduates go on to work in food service positions at schools or universities, childcare facilities and nursing homes. Others have opened food trucks or taken positions at local supermarkets or restaurants.

Importantly, CTP has increased the Foodbank’s capacity to provide healthy, nutritious meals for the Kids Cafes five-fold: They were once providing 1,000 meals per week but they now prepare more than 5,000. Ninety percent of meals served out of the former facility were prepared cold; now all children receive hot, well-balanced meals of higher quality and diversity. Fruit, vegetables and milk are included with each meal, and the menu ranges from fish sandwiches to spaghetti with meat sauce. The real-life impact this has on the community cannot be understated; these meals are going to disadvantaged children who live in food-insecure homes.

Remaining Challenges: The program’s rigor presents the Foodbank with unique challenges—and opportunities. On one hand, students are well prepared for employment and employers feel confident hiring CTP graduates. On the other, the intensity of the program results in a high dropout rate. Some students leave the program due to extenuating circumstances, such as a lack of access to transportation or childcare. In one instance, a program participant explained that she had no electricity at home, making the requirement of coming to class clean and well-prepared a challenge. The Foodbank would like to graduate more students without compromising program quality, but the size of the commercial kitchen limits classes to only 12 each.

A relatively newer challenge is recruitment. Initially, the Foodbank received plenty of referrals from partner organizations (including health and human service organizations, correctional facilities and housing agencies). Indeed, CTP has become a recognized and well-established program in the communities it serves. But as the number of classes increases, it becomes more difficult to find 12 new students for each class. Given the program’s highly demanding structure, program organizers realize that the program will not be right for everyone and recognize the need to expand recruitment efforts moving forward.

Lessons Learned: Consistency is critical. CTP has been successful in large part because the curriculum has remained consistent; prospective employers are confident in the skills, discipline and work ethic of CTP graduates, contributing to the program’s high job placement rate. Some of the program’s strategies and strategic partnerships have changed, but the culinary and job/life training curricula have remained intact over time.

Program leaders also say that CTP’s almost military-like strictness is a key to its success. Many program participants have never been exposed to strict working conditions, and discipline is a hard characteristic to instill in such a short amount of time. CTP policies such as these are designed to replicate the real-world work environment so that graduates find long-term success after beginning their new careers.

Lastly, CTP’s leadership has realized the importance for training providers to stick to their strengths and remain dedicated to mission. Though it was a potential revenue driver, CTP realized early on that it was not suited for catering, which would be extremely time intensive and would stretch the capacity of the facility. Instead, CTP remains focused on child nutrition and preparing the Kids Cafe meals on a timely basis.

For more information, visit the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank’sCulinary Training Program website.



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