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Culinary Training Feeds People and Futures

September 17, 2013

By: Mara Frazier, Manager, Community Affairs, Darden Restaurants

Culinary Training Feeds People and Futures

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According to Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger-relief charity, one out of six people in the U.S. experiences hunger every day, and almost a third of those are children. Quick math? Carry the 1 million...and that's 50.1 million people, 16.7 million of whom are children! That is unnatural. 

There are complicated issues at play. Hunger is a pervasive issue connected to homelessness, graduation rates and crime, among a host of others. Research shows a lack of job skills is a contributing factor to hunger issues. To address these, we must focus on hunger relief, a philosophy that requires constant innovation and collaboration to adapt with the changing socioeconomic realities of our country. 

During Hunger Action Month, I'm proud to showcase one shining example of innovation that's taking place right here in Orlando. Last March, Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida opened a new 100,000-square-foot Hunger Relief Center. This building is a labor of love that reflects input from the hundreds of agencies that the food bank serves along with its donors. The result is a beautiful, wisely designed facility that proudly houses the 2,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Darden Foundation Community Kitchen. The kitchen is a production area for meals for partner agencies and children’s summer programs, and it has an entrepreneurial component through on-site event catering.  

However, their most innovative program is a 12-week intensive culinary training program, which provides low-income adults with culinary and life skills training needed to pursue a sustainable career in the food industry. I had the opportunity to shadow the inaugural class of seven culinary students (selected from an applicant pool of nearly 70) during the first and last weeks of the program.  By day four, students proudly donned crisp white chef coats and were confidently showing off their knife skills. Then they shared their stories - those of lost jobs, emigrating from another country, caring for relatives and struggling with substance abuse. The connecting thread?  Hope. And the need to feed it.

Over the course of the program, students learn the basic culinary foundations needed to obtain an entry-level position in any food service establishment across the country. The program is designed to complement two- and four-year formal culinary programs in the area, should students choose to continue with their culinary education. The last two weeks are spent in a full-time internship before they return to the Darden Community Kitchen for a final project: put everything they've learned to the test and develop an original dish for future inclusion on Second Harvest's catering menu!

Darden also hosted the students at our Restaurant Support Center for mock interviews with culinary and human resources colleagues from across the industry. I'm proud to say each graduate has since secured a professional position with companies including LongHorn Steakhouse, Orlando World Center Marriott, Health Central Hospital, Disney's Epcot Food & Wine and Crowne Plaza Orlando.

There's a lot of learning on the fly and course-correcting with the first of anything. With this first culinary class, there was a need for fast collaboration and grace from partners. I was impressed by our network of nonprofit agencies and corporate funders to fill in the gaps and set a precedent for the future classes. It gives me great hope. Of course, the graduates say it best. One participant with a background of drug and alcohol addiction said:

“This program led me down a better road than I was on and provided me with a new start. The staff taught me life skills about how to prevent myself from going back to what I was doing before. Second Harvest has helped me out so much, and I would love to give back some of what it gave me.”

Stay hopeful and tuned in as we feature some more of their stories soon.

By: Mara Frazier, Manager, Community Affairs, Darden Restaurants

Mara Frazier has enjoyed 13 years with Darden, most recently as Manager, Community Affairs.  She helps lead and support Darden’s community priorities and philanthropic relationships, and is passionate about hunger relief. 

Pictured: Israel Santiago, Darden Foundation Community Kitchen Chef Instructor, is passionate about teaching his students the culinary skills and life skills needed for sustained success.

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