How Food Helps Homeless People Get Back on Their Feet

The Doe Fund housing and job training program in New York City expands its food-related opportunities.


In New York City, it’s easy to recognize participants in the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing, and Able program. Dressed in bright blue from head to toe, passersby can spot participants picking up garbage and power washing sidewalks from the Upper East Side to Times Square.

Their work is part of the non-profit organization’s 30-year-old effort to help homeless men achieve self-sufficiency and escape cycles of homelessness, crime, and addiction. In addition to providing transitional housing, the nine-to 12-month program offers participants both paid work and job training.

Recently, the Doe Fund has been incorporating food into its program in bigger and more varied ways: it has expanded training programs for jobs in the food industry, fostered a connection to sustainable, healthy food via on-site gardens and apiaries, and engaged with the local food system through partnerships and farmers’ market initiatives.

“We’re a big organization with a lot of capacity and core competencies in job training and housing,” says Jason Finder, the Doe Fund’s associate director of food service enterprises. “The philosophy of it is for us to figure out what we do really well and can bring to the table for the food system [and] where there’s opportunity for those projects to also serve our mission … There are some really interesting intersections there.”

Serving about 1,000 men at any given time, the overall model of the Doe Fund has been impressively successful. Though many of the men who start the program also have criminal backgrounds, an independent Harvard study from 2010 found that Ready, Willing, and Able participants were 60 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony within three years of their release compared to a control group. It also found the social benefit of the program exceeded the cost by 21 percent.

Within Ready, Willing, and Able, participants choose to enroll in occupational training programs that focus on professions like commercial driving, pest control, and culinary arts, all of which are designed to set them up for job opportunities upon completion.

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In the Kitchen

The success of the Culinary Arts Program (now called the Culinary Vocation Program) is one reason the Doe Fund began to think more broadly about food, Finder says.

Launched about 10 years ago, the program focuses on commercial kitchen skills (for settings like universities and hospitals) and includes 48 hours of classroom training and 30 hours each week of paid on-the-job training. Each year, about 60 to 70 trainees end up serving more than 500,000 meals to residents living at the Doe Fund’s three facilities.

“It’s really a lot of basic skills,” says Eric Smith, the chef instructor at the organization’s Harlem kitchen and a graduate of the program himself, standing in the kitchen in his chef whites, surrounded by pots and pans. “We teach cooking methods like how to bake, fry, roast, braise.”

When I ask Smith if his kitchen trainees go on to secure work, he mentions those who are now at Eataly, Gramercy Tavern, Fordham University, and a graduate who started his own bakery downtown.

This year, to expand on that success, the Doe Fund launched a new eight-week Chef-in-Training program that is taught by a Culinary Institute of America alum and focuses more on skills needed for restaurant work, such as managing the fast-paced demands of the restaurant setting. Three classes with 10-12 trainees each were planned for 2016, and in 2017, seven classes of that size will be offered.

Tyrone Gordon connected with the Doe Fund after finding himself homeless after serving a four-year prison term and being unable to kick a drug problem. He completed the Chef-In-Training program this year and is now working in the kitchen at North End Grill, a fine dining restaurant that is part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.

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“I was never interested in cooking before then. I was surprised that I was so good at it,” Gordon says. “The training at the Doe Fund taught me how to focus on more than one thing at a time. It taught me how to follow instructions and pay attention to detail.”

“At North End Grill,” Gordon continues, “I really have to manage my time. I have to be accurate and fast. I’m starting from the bottom and working my way up.”

In addition to cooking meals for residents, trainees in both programs also now run a catering service and a bakery that sells pastries made with local, organic grains at New York farmers’ markets.

Longtime food justice advocated Reverend Robert Ennis Jackson said that at the Marcy Plaza Farmers’ Market in Brooklyn, the local community had an overwhelmingly positive response to the introduction of the Doe Fund’s baked goods about a month ago. Rev. Jackson is the co-founder of the Brooklyn Rescue Mission Urban Harvest Center, the organization that runs the market. He said he could also see how providing food to the community was having an impact on the men in the program.

“The bakers that are out here are very positive and look like they have a genuine affection for their fellow workers,” he says. “This kind of powerful connection is not just good food; it’s good food creating good culture.”

Hands in the Dirt

Then there’s the garden initiative. When you approach the door to the Harlem shelter, you pass by raised beds filled with tomatoes, kale, callalloo, fresh herbs, and blooming flowers, built with the help of partner organization Sprouting Greens. To support the gardening effort, rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange installed and helps maintain an apiary on the roof of the building as well. (In a similar partnership, Feedback Farms helped Doe Fund build a garden at its shelter in Bushwick.)

Ready, Willing, and Able participants tend to the plants in the garden, and trainees in the culinary programs then use the produce grown in the kitchen.

While the garden is not considered a job-training project, Finder says the Doe Fund is thinking about the many elements of its food programming in a more holistic manner. “It’s more of a wellness and life-skills program,” he says. “We’re not trying to train guys to be farmers, for many, many reasons, both cultural and economic. The garden can teach soft skills; it can have therapeutic value; and it certainly can increase access to fresh produce.”

One graduate of the Doe Fund’s program, Julius Green, worked in the garden nearly every morning while staying at the shelter. He repeatedly used the word “rewarding” as he relayed his experience. He, for one, did go on to work in urban farming. He’s helped Brooklyn Grange install green roofs and has planted trees in parks all over the city.

“Planting your own fruits and vegetables and then harvesting and getting to eat them—you’re never going to find anything more satisfying,” Green says. “It’s my way of giving back, and I get a lot of joy out of doing it, when I go back and see some of the plants that I planted.”

Photos courtesy of the Doe Fund.

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