Feeding Opportunity: Jobs, Wages, and Secretary Acosta’s Visits Second Harvest
The Providence Culinary Training kitchen at Second Harvest Food Bank smelled amazing—like tomatoes and tarragon and cheese: Swiss, gruyere, parmesan.
The students had just plated tomato cheese tarts and tossed the salad when Secretary R. Alexander Acosta and Representative Virginia Foxx came in. Everything looked perfect.
Representative Foxx had invited the US Secretary of Labor to see how Second Harvest’s 13- week culinary training program was getting people right here in Northwest North Carolina back to work—and not only back to work, but starting career paths that can lead to family-supporting wages.
Here in Northwest North Carolina—a region rich in food traditions and agricultural yields—16% of residents are food insecure, including 23% of children. For over 36 years, Second Harvest Food Bank has been reclaiming food and fostering relationships to move food that would otherwise go to waste to the families that need it the most. Every day, 37 tons of food moves in and out of our doors, going out to our network of partner programs from Burlington to Boone.
However, food insecurity does not exist in isolation: it is a symptom of the persistent poverty we see in our area. 42% of residents in Northwest North Carolina are low-income and are unable to make ends meet to cover even their most basic needs, from housing to health care to transportation to food. We find that the majority of the households that come to Second Harvest’s network of food assistance programs have an employed adult, but 57% of these households have incomes of less than $1,000 a month.
Because of these persistent realities, in 2007 Second Harvest opened Providence Culinary Training-PCT (then called Triad Community Kitchen) in the back of our warehouses in Winston-Salem. The idea was simple: If we can help people secure family-supporting wage jobs, then they can move into self-sufficiency and not need the supports of charity or government assistance. But we knew this would not be an easy task: students coming to the program were going to be facing very real barriers. For example, Lindsey Bledsoe, PCT’s social worker, explains that students coming into the program often lack stable housing, reliable transportation, or adequate health care. One recent student was traveling over four hours each day on the bus just to get to class; another student had to defer her acceptance into the program because her childcare fell through just as she was due to start.
Another recent graduate’s story is illustrative of the drive and commitment our students have and also the significant social barriers that afflict our communities. This young man was enrolled in a local community college’s culinary program and was doing well. However, his course schedule disrupted his work schedule, and he lost hours on his job—and losing hours meant losing pay. He was unable to keep up with his rent and lost his home. Homeless, without a place to shower, to sleep or to study, he left the school program. Once he moved into a local shelter, he was able to enroll in PCT and access transportation to get him to and from the classes. With these most basic needs met, this student successfully graduated and is now in the paid residency program at Providence Restaurant, where he is making a wage sufficient to again have his own apartment.
Two years ago, we added this two-year residency program for students facing these kinds of obstacles. While many, in fact, most of the graduates from the 13-week course land jobs immediately through their internships in the community, we know that it takes time for people to become truly financially stable in an unstable economy. The paid residency at our Providence Restaurant not only adds significant experience to participant’s resumes, it continues to offer basic and necessary supportive services that are not always afforded to those who have been left behind through the uneven economic recovery.
These supports— including time-tested and results-based programs such as SNAP— make all the difference for our students and people like them in our communities. Our work with PCT has only reinforced what we already knew: Northwest North Carolinians want to be self-sufficient, but to get there they may need our help to set the table. After all, not one of us can get where we are going on an empty stomach.
Our Providence Culinary Training program has an incredible success rate: to date, 664 local graduates have completed the program. More importantly, 86% of those graduates are currently employed (in a three year look back). Our staff is proud to be part of that journey for them, but we know that we only laid the foundation for their successes— the students have done the rest.
After Acosta and Foxx left Second Harvest to continue their tour of Forsyth County, the students quickly got back to work in the kitchen—pots boiling, steam rising, waves of cool air bursting relief into the hot kitchen as the freezer door opened and closed. They were making and bagging pasta meals to be sent out to soup kitchens and community meal sites across Northwest North Carolina. Everything now smelled of garlic.
The next day these students would get a relief from the commotion of the kitchen. They would be attending the graduation of 12 of their peers at Providence Restaurant across town, knowing that soon they too will don chef coats and hats and receive their diplomas. They would listen to the speeches of the graduates and listen to the applause and sometimes raucous cheers from the audience.
They would also learn that all 12 of the day’s graduates already have jobs lined up…a necessary bit of practical hope amidst the pomp and circumstance.