My first job was providing crying kids sticky peppermint ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. I earned less than six dollars an hour and I left each day smelling like waffle cones, but I can still craft the perfect double scoop when someone breaks out the Ben & Jerry’s.
Besides being something that we all need to survive, food is an industry most of us will work in at some point in our lives. From fast food to family style to fine dining, there are a plethora of eating options for any palate. Since every food service option employs some people, and many employ a lot of people, there is a fairly consistent job market in food production, cooking and serving. Realizing this, one San Antonio food pantry started working to train homeless individuals to work cooking and restaurant jobs.
It’s hard to overlook that the adage, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime” has come to life at the San Antonio Community Kitchen. The six-week class includes tips on food safety and, because all the food is donated, getting creative with your meal options. This concept has gained traction in many cities, even leading one food pantry in Salinas, California to close its doors in 2010 after twenty-five years of proving meals to the hungry. The pantry hadn’t ended hunger, but instead had decided it could better serve its population by teaching, not serving. Today, the facility is known as the Red Artichoke Culinary School, a program to teach individuals in poverty to cook at a level that will make them competitive or chef and sous-chef positions.
Why is this type of job training any different from the other types of employment coaching available to low-income job seekers? Unlike teaching someone how to dress for an interview or fix up their resume – which are both important skills – culinary training offers both an employment edge and a boost in the individual’s personal health and wellness. Even if a person experiencing homelessness does receive food stamps (which max out in Maryland at $189 per month), most shelters and day centers don’t allow outside food. People who have lived in homelessness for an extended period of time do not have access to an oven or even a refrigerator, so food items are limited. This leaves options that require no preparation and leave no leftovers, such as snack foods or instant meals.
When a previously homeless person does get housing, the kitchen can feel like an intimidating place, and old eating habits can be hard to break. Demystifying cooking and food options can help someone out financially if it leads to their employment, but also personally if it can improve their health and comfort level in their new home.