Jehmel Alexander stands in a spotless, state-of-the-art kitchen mixing a huge bowl of freshly chopped broccoli, peas, and carrots with rice and beef. The meal will be one of 5,000 that Foodlink, one of the nation’s oldest food banks, prepares for children in Rochester, New York, every weekday.
Alexander is one of a dozen men and women selected for the inaugural class of the Foodlink Career Fellowship, a 12-month program to prepare hard-to-employ individuals for mid-skill culinary jobs that pay a living wage—about $45,000 annually—and offer room for advancement. (For comparison’s sake, the median annual wage for entry-level food industry jobs is $20,410.)
“I’ve been cooking since I was 13,” says Alexander, 20. “It makes me happy to see people enjoying what I make.”
Before earning a spot in the career fellowship, Alexander worked as a busboy at an Olive Garden franchise. Four of his fellow classmates, who range in age from 18 to 50, were employed at fast-food establishments, four were on public assistance, and the rest were on parole or recovering from substance abuse.
The launch of the fellowship coincides with Foodlink’s 40th anniversary, and marks a new chapter in the nonprofit’s expansion in Rochester. The food bank, founded by Tom Ferraro in 1978 (who served on the board of the nonprofit Second Harvest, which eventually became Feeding America), has grown to a 500-member organization that currently distributes more than 18 million pounds of emergency food—including nearly 5 million pounds of produce—to human services agencies, food pantries, senior centers, after-school programs, and daycares in 10 counties.
Foodlink also runs more than 30 programs aimed at ending hunger and improving nutrition, like its Curbside Market trucks, which deliver low-cost fresh fruit and vegetables to about 30,000 customers. Foodlink also operates a 1.3-acre farm in northwest Rochester, where refugees from Nepal, Bhutan, and Somalia grow about 5,000 pounds of food annually for other Foodlink programs and to feed their families.
Creating a culinary program is one dream that Ferraro, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2014, didn’t live to see fulfilled. His staff committed to making it a reality.
“Tom always thought workforce development was an integral part of our work,” says Mitch Gruber, Foodlink’s chief program officer. “But it took many years to fully develop a program of this magnitude because [it] is incredibly challenging and resource-intensive if it is to be run effectively.”
At the same time, Wegmans Food Markets, also headquartered in Rochester, was having difficulty filling mid-level cook positions, and urged the food bank to expedite the process, which kicked off two years of planning. And with the launch of the career fellowship in July 2018, Foodlink has joined a large cohort of programs across the country—from Wisconsin to San Diego and from Oregon to New York—that are meeting the strong demand for skilled kitchen labor by training the formerly incarcerated and economically disadvantaged.
Building a Program
As part of their research, Foodlink staff visited DC Central Kitchen and L.A. Kitchen (which closed last month), two of the 60 members of Catalyst Kitchens, a Seattle-based organization that helps nonprofit organizations expand or grow food-service businesses and culinary job training programs geared to the homeless and formerly incarcerated. Foodlink staff learned that successful programs offer workplace readiness skills and customized, attainable career pathways, training kitchens modeled after real work environments, and access to job placement and retention support. Foodlink also hired Catalyst Consulting, an arm of Catalyst Kitchens, to conduct a feasibility study.
Locally, Foodlink staff met with business leaders in food sales and production to learn about their employment needs. The bottom line: there were more jobs than qualified mid-level cooks. “If we are successful in training people for the jobs that exist in Rochester’s food industry, we can continue to scale up the fellowship to meet the demand,” says Gruber.
For those who graduate, the future looks promising. In addition to Wegmans, other major regional employers—including Barilla Pasta, LiDestri Foods, the University of Rochester, and the Rochester Institute of Technology—are experiencing difficulty finding skilled mid-level cooks. There is a nationwide shortage of mid-level cooks, which is likely to worsen, even as demand increases: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, demand for cooks projected to rise 6 percent by 2026.
Foodlink fellowship’s pilot year cost about $360,000, funded by Foodlink and three local foundations. The food bank’s reputation for creating and maintaining programs that effectively address the root causes of hunger—and its financial stability—gave community funders and partners the confidence to support and engage with the new program, says Gruber.
Wegmans’ strong support was also vital to developing the culinary program, he adds. In 2016, the supermarket giant helped design and pay for Foodlink’s $5 million, 28,000-square-foot kitchen, built at the nonprofit’s headquarters on the northwest side of the city. Wegmans staff advised Foodlink on the purchase of kitchen equipment and curriculum development and, most importantly, Wegmans committed to providing externships to the fellows during their final three months in the program. The supermarket chain will consider successful interns for full-time employment. Foodlink is committed to helping those who are not hired by Wegmans find positions with other local companies, staff say.
The partnership is mutually beneficial, says John Emerson, Wegmans’ vice president of prepared foods. “We need them to grow our businesses,” he says. “It’s very hard to get people to work in food service. It’s not seen as glamorous—everyone wants to work in an office these days.”
The year-long Foodlink Career Fellowship is significantly longer than similar programs—a major strength, according to Emerson. By repeating kitchen tasks over and over, students become proficient in food preparation, he says. “So many programs tend to be 12 to 20 weeks—just enough to get an entry-level job earning a minimum wage. In real life, [cooks] have to debone hundreds of chickens a day.”
The students spend 90 minutes a day in the classroom learning Rouxbe, a web-based culinary curriculum used by Wegmans, Marriott International, and other professional kitchens. The rest of their time is spent in the kitchen, making lunches in the cold room, working on an assembly line, slicing apples for school snack bags, and preparing hot meals in the kitchen. Foodlink cooks teach the students food safety, knife skills, food prep, kitchen cleaning, and teamwork.
By the time they complete the fellowship, students will have earned six industry-recognized certifications and gained invaluable experience. “[Graduates will] have worked for a year, not only on their culinary skills, but also their own personal barriers to sustainable employment,” says Jes Scannell, the program’s director of career empowerment. “Our goal is that this work creates a reliable, skilled, emotionally intelligent employee for our employer partners. It will reduce turnover. Equally as important, it will impact family self-sufficiency and the demographic make-up of middle-skills employees in our region.”
Foodlink’s positive impact has not gone unnoticed; as the nonprofit celebrated its 40th anniversary in December, it received a $481,000 grant from the USDA to expand its Curbside Market, and $20,000 from the Enterprise Foundation to continue its work.
New York State Senator Joseph Robach, a Republican who represents New York’s 56th District, calls Foodlink “an invaluable member of the community.” “I have had the privilege of seeing Foodlink grow from its infancy to where it is today,” he says. “They not only achieve their goal of providing food to those in need, they also add to the overall wellness of our community and contribute to our local farming and agriculture economy. Foodlink is truly one of my favorite organizations in the Rochester area.”
Providing Wraparound Support
While the kitchen employees direct the fellows in the art of cooking, Scannell and Clayton Waller, the program’s career coach, teach workplace readiness skills. Both were hired specifically for the culinary training program.
“Instead of focusing on deficits, we have them look at the big and small events in their lives and how they grew from them,” says Scannell. In addition to traditional skills—goal setting, resume writing, and interviewing—students learn how to get to work on time every day, stay motivated, and peacefully resolve work conflicts.
And if a fellow’s personal life starts to fray, Scannell and Waller are quick to step in—“wrapping a client in support,” they say. They helped a young woman find alternate means to pay for daycare after her partner left town, referred students for legal advice and mental health counseling, and smoothed out tenant-landlord disputes.
“Their lives are fragile,” says Scannell. “It doesn’t take much to throw a wrench in things.”
Despite the high level of support, three of the fellows dropped out before the end of the first quarter—one for health reasons and two for repeated absences. “We made referrals to other programs,” says Waller. “And they were told if they re-applied here, they could return.”
The Rochester program’s experience is not unusual, says Renee Martin, director of Catalyst Kitchens. The annual attrition rate for Catalyst’s national network of culinary programs is between 30 and 40 percent.
“It’s almost impossible to predict who will make it,” Martin says. “There is a whole constellation of variables that impact [a student’s] ability to stay the course. Trainees must ‘opt in.’ You have to be willing to stick it out and succeed.”
Foodlink conducted a “rigorous assessment” of its applicants during the selection process and will continue to tweak the program, says Gruber. But staff acknowledge the needs of the students have been more intensive than anticipated. That’s one reason why Foodlink has decided to train two groups of students a year, rather than the four groups they’d initially planned. “We would rather spend more time with each cohort to ensure that we are setting people up for long-term success in the food industry,” Gruber says.
Money was another factor in the decision to grow the program more slowly than planned. “Though we eventually expect to have employer-sponsors to make the program sustainable, we know that right now we need to find ways to make the Fellowship financially viable,” Gruber adds.
LaRhonda Harris, a 28-year-old single mother of three, is one of the students who has blossomed in the program, in part thanks to the caring of Scannell and Waller. On one occasion, Waller accompanied Harris to a parent-teacher conference. “We wanted to make sure she had an advocate,” he explains. After the teacher informed Harris that her son was way behind in class, Scannell bought the child flash cards and books.
Before cooking school, Harris says she sat at home worrying how she and her children would survive. “This place brought out a different person in me,” she says. “This place motivates me.”
Even her children are behaving better. “My kids see me going out, doing something positive. It makes them real happy.”
Top photo: Jehmel Alexander, working in the Foodlink kitchen. (All photos courtesy of Foodlink)
Update: This post has been updated to reflect the current number of members of Catalyst Kitchens.