Recipe for Success

Food bank serves meals and a second chance

In the world of second chances, you’re not going to find a better example than the Community Kitchen program at St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix. It’s a 16-week program that takes people who’ve had challenges getting a job—whether due to prison sentences, drug problems, or behavioral or domestic issues—and teaches them the skills to be marketable as food service workers.

“A lot of what we do at the food bank is handing out food to folks who need it,” says Jerry Brown, director of media relations. “Community Kitchen is really our hand-up program. It’s an opportunity for folks to better themselves, and to get them to the point where they don’t need food assistance and can become self-supporting through employment.”

Working in a million-dollar kitchen that looks much like what you’d see in a top-flight restaurant, students learn to use all of the equipment, knives, and utensils, gaining the same skills a professional cook would have in their arsenal. When they leave the program, graduates not only have four months’ worth of skills under their belts and a food safety card, they have a track record of coming into work on time, passing necessary drug tests, and moving forward from whatever problems they had in the past.

The result is a hiring rate of more than 90 percent for program graduates, who’ve ended up anywhere from hotels, ballparks and school programs, all the way up to the cook who flips the most expensive steaks at Durant’s.

“There are a lot of businesses throughout the Valley that understand that it’s sometimes hard to find folks, not just for the positions they’re looking for with some experience, but knowing where they’ve been for the past four months,” Brown says. “They know the graduates of Community Kitchen have dedicated themselves to that eight hours a day, and they find them to be very competent hires. Once they find they can trust us and find a high level of graduate, they keep coming back.”

The Community Kitchen program is divided into four, four-week segments. Early on, students prepare food for each other and St. Mary’s employees, as well as hot meals for the Kids Café afterschool program. As seniors, having gained experience and ability, they dedicate one of their final weeks to the CK Catering program—food that’s going out to the public.

CK Catering handles a wide variety of events with set breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, offering everything from breakfast staples, to gourmet sandwiches, to fancier dinner fare such as braised short ribs and chicken saltimbocca. When businesses come to St. Mary’s for business meetings in the morning and volunteering at the food bank in the afternoon, for example, CK Catering provides the lunch for them. Businesses in the vicinity of the food bank are also among the loyal client base.

“Not only does it help the food bank, but they know the people who are doing it are gaining experience toward the next step in getting their lives back,” Brown says. And, of course, the program handles any St. Mary’s board of directors meetings—and if there are any leftovers, there’s no problem drawing a crowd.

The annual Duncan Family Farms event in December in Buckeye is the highlight for the catering crew.

“We feed about 400 people who work there, and the students get to go out and not only prepare the food but serve it,” says Brenden Hernandez, career services specialist. “It’s a breakfast bar, so the catering staff and manager get to the farm early to make pancakes, bacon, and eggs. It’s simple food, but I think the nice thing about it is that everyone is so thankful that we come out and feed them. You can really taste the love in the food.”

Hernandez notes that a recent graduate achieved her dream by joining M Culinary Concepts, an upscale catering company based in Phoenix.

“The people who’ve gone through our catering program are capable of doing anything,” he says. “Working in career services, my mission is to help the students find jobs. Whether that’s in catering or a regular restaurant, the main thing is that they want to get to work and get their lives back on track.”

 

Story by Jake Poinier
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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