Food savvy and training in culinary and nutritional skills can make a difference between becoming self-sustaining and being trapped in the cycle of poverty for many low-income families that benefit from the services of food banks nationwide. Many of these grocery distribution depots are stepping up to the plate with nutrition and job skill classes that empower students with the skills to succeed in the culinary industry and in healthy family living. Two programs offered by nutrition advocates on opposite coasts highlight the positive changes inspired by the lessons learned by graduates.
Chief instructor, Ray Cattley, of the Culinary Job Skills Training Program at the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties in Neptune, New Jersey teaches a 12-week cooking crash course that runs five days a week. Students build a strong foundation in food preparation from the start, banking on knife skills, many different culinary techniques and training in making sauces. Cattley’s wish is to give his graduates a new set of skills that will help them land a job in the culinary field when they finish the class.
NBC reports the experience of Theresa Fitzgerald, a single mother in her late 20s with a love for cooking, who lost her house about a year ago. With a bleak outlook, Fitzgerald entered the culinary training program under Cattley’s tutelage. She proved to be an excellent student, graduating with honors. She quickly found a restaurant job and now puts her skills to work as a personal chef, applying the skills she learned in the program to fuel her success. She credits Cattley, known to his students as Chef Ray, with showing her possibilities she didn’t realize existed within herself. She brims over with confidence in her ability to do anything, thanks to everything she learned under the instructors’ guidance.
The food bank’s website reports that more than 200 graduates have passed through the program. Classes start three times every year and receive private grant support that allows the organization to offer the training free of charge to successful applicants.
On opposite shores, the Oregon Food Bank provides hands-on nutrition education classes for low-income families and individuals. Classes are available in both English and Spanish and the instructors can customize them for various audiences, from kids, teens, parents and families to single adults or childcare workers. The sessions aim to teach new ways of thinking about food preferences, cooking and eating habits. The curriculum includes cooking methods, nutrition, safety, shopping and meal planning tips and proper sanitation and safe storage for a better quality of life.
Trained volunteers work with Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters, a national nutrition education program sponsored by the ConAgra Foods Foundation and Walmart. In addition, they offer a Seed to Supper program that teaches adults the know-how for gardening on a budget. The training, taught by trained gardeners, instills students’ with the self-confidence and proficiency to grow their own food in a low-pressure, interactive environment.
The distribution agencies work with local organizations and social service agencies to target both classes for the neediest families free to anyone who registers. They do not require proof of income to register for the classes, but do target families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level income. The program supplies free ingredients to allow students to practice their new skills at home. Graduates receive the gift of a book of cooking tips and recipes or gardening advice, depending on the course they are completing. Their website features a testimonial from one graduate expressing astonishment at how much money he saves by preparing his own food and vowing to become a more frequent coupon user.
The example set by these two distribution operations is repeated in many similar organizations nationwide. By teaching the participants to fish, so to speak, they are empowering them to eat for a lifetime, rather than remain stuck in the downward spiral of poverty and hunger. The compassion that drives the food banks to go beyond handouts with the culinary and nutrition training programs is a powerful catalyst for making a difference in the drive to stamp out hunger across the nation.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser