When it comes to fighting hunger in our community, providing meals for our neighbors in need is critically important. But to create long-term change, we must “shorten the line” of people struggling with food insecurity – connecting them with resources to secure a steady income.
On that front, Second Harvest Food Bank has an opportunity to expand one of our region’s most successful job pipelines – and we hope our lawmakers and community will rally behind it.
For the past five years, Second Harvest’s Culinary Training Program has provided at-risk, economically disadvantaged adults with culinary and life skills training to pursue a career in the food industry. Over a 16-week course, students learn from a team of award-winning chefs in a high-volume production kitchen at no charge. In addition to culinary skills, students receive business training in subjects like inventory, cost control and kitchen staffing. They also complete an internship, develop a recipe portfolio and hone their interview skills.
The Culinary Training Program provides not only hands-on experience, but also a direct pathway into restaurant and hotel kitchens across Central Florida – placing 100 percent of alumni into jobs. More than 280 graduates have launched careers with employers such as Darden, AdventHealth and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, as well as dozens of independent restaurants. These alumni aren’t just holding down these jobs over time – many have been promoted, and others have started their own food-based businesses.
With tourism at an all-time high, the opportunities will only grow. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity recently forecasted a 10.7 percent increase in the demand for hospitality employees in Central Florida over the next eight years. Many of these positions pay well over minimum wage, with some major employers pledging starting wages of $15 an hour.
With that in mind, Second Harvest is seeking to grow our program’s capacity. We are requesting $350,000 from the Florida legislature, with support from State Sen. David Simmons (District 9) and State Rep. Kamia Brown (District 45), who is sponsoring House Bill 2623.
The funding would allow us to expand enrollment to 80 students each year, up from 60. It would also allow us to offer training in barista and baking skills. Expanding student knowledge and experience with different aspects of the industry will increase their employability. Baking skills, in particular, are highly sought after by employers. Finally, the funding would provide a van to transport students to off-site hands-on learning opportunities and catering events where they can connect with employers and practice their skills.
When I think about what this funding would mean to our community, I remember people like Miguel. A Puerto Rico native, Miguel lost his home to Hurricane Maria. One of his daughters has epilepsy and requires a refrigerated medication. Without electricity, they struggled to find ice and, eventually, a resupply of medicine. His family sought refuge with an aunt while his daughter’s health stabilized and he participated in the Culinary Training Program. Today, Miguel is working as a prep cook at Rosen Shingle Creek, proudly supporting his family, who are now settled in a rental home.
Like Miguel, many of our graduates have fled dire circumstances. Some of them are single moms who escaped domestic violence situations, while others grew up amid generational poverty in Central Florida. One-third have been homeless. When they finish our program, they start a new chapter and serve as role models for their loved ones.
And when they arrive on the job, they impress employers with their determination, team spirit and appreciative attitude. It takes inner strength to work in a fast-paced kitchen, preparing dinners for 2,000 convention attendees. Our graduates have honed that strength through life’s trials – and with the support of their team at Second Harvest.
We need to pursue many job creation avenues to bolster our workforce, so our neighbors can stand on stronger financial footing. But in evaluating our options, we need to replicate what’s already working. Since its founding, the Culinary Training Program has generated a 420 percent return on investment. That’s based on the cost to put a year’s worth of students through the program, compared with conservative estimates of their first year of earnings.
We hope our community will ask lawmakers to support House Bill 2623 and secure funding to make the program available for even more deserving job-seekers. The line is getting shorter – but as long as it remains, we still have work to do.
This commentary originally appeared in The Orlando Sentinel on Sunday, March 17, 2019.
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