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Learning a Skill, Helping Along the Way

By Therese Madden
WHYY

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Philabundance is the region’s largest hunger relief organization. In addition to producing meals for shelters and feeding programs, their Community Kitchen is also a place for low-income adults to learn the culinary skills needed to get a job in a commercial kitchen.

The Philabundance Community kitchen in North Philadelphia is a buzz of activity. The kitchen is attached to a homeless shelter for women and children, which is where some of the food being prepared will go. This crew of twenty is also preparing meals for other shelters and food programs throughout the region. One cook puts down her knife to describe the scene, “basically we’re just cutting up vegetables, we’re getting food out for lunch that has to go in the oven. We have spare ribs ready to go in the oven, barbecue chicken ready to go in the oven, goulash ready to go in oven. We have to keep busy, it’s a kitchen, there’s always something to do in a kitchen.”

The cooks here are part of a vocational training program. The participants learn to cook while preparing meals that will help feed the hungry. The students in this 14 week program are all low-income themselves. Some of them have used the services of Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger relief organization. Like student Inea West, “when I was laid off, I have two boys I needed to feed. There were times when I actually used the Philabundance truck that would stop in the different neighborhoods for free food.” Ironically, West first came to Philabundance to do volunteer work when she was still working. “I just felt it was important to give back, and look I’m volunteering, I am using the service now as a student. So, it brought me back full circle and its important you never know when you are going to need the help of others, so you should always help when you can.” When the program is over, West plans to start her own catering business.

Most of the other students are hoping to get a job, for some, their first. Jennifer Williams is the employment specialist for the Philabundance Community Kitchen. As part of the program, she helps students with their resumes and leads them through mock interviews. “Some of our clients come with different levels of experience, some have been incarcerated, so I deal with ex-offender population. I also deal with relapsing or substance abuse, and things of that nature. So, it’s a challenge of filling gaps for their resume. Getting them more prepared for interviewing skills, especially those who have been incarcerated for some time. So, they have not interviewed for in a while, some candidates we get have not interviewed at all. So, it’s just challenging to get them prepared and have a realistic view of where they can go from now.” According to Philabundance, there is a 85% job placement rate for participants of the program.

Back in the kitchen, students are gathered around a stainless steel table, prepping for an exam. “What are the 3 types of contamination?” Passing the exam will get them a certificate in safe food handling, a plus for most employers. Candace Matthews Bass is Director of the Job Training Program, she says feeding people is just one part of Philabundance’s mission. “The second part is to create an ultimate end to hunger through the end of poverty, which is to empower adults to use their own hands, their own abilities, give them the ability to take care of their own families. So, self-sufficiency essentially would end the need.” Bass says she thinks participants also benefit from helping others, “in giving back, people have an opportunity to help someone who may be in similar circumstances as them. But, it builds perspective, it’s easy to place judgment on people and circumstances until you look it in face.” Student, Tumpe Rose agrees, “it means a lot. It really does, and to know that people love our food as well, it means a great deal.”

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