Training Cooks, Nourishing the Community
We all know that the best recipes have secret ingredients. At the Community Kitchen Academy (CKA), encouragement, camaraderie, and support are just a few of the ingredients that students work with during their training. Upon completion, graduates come away with confidence, jobs, a commitment to serve their communities, and a better understanding of how to prepare nutritious foods from scratch.
Eleven newly-minted cooks from around Central Vermont were awarded diplomas last Thursday at Barre’s Old Labor Hall. Before dozens of family members, friends, and community supporters who came out for the ceremony, the CKA graduates accepted their diplomas and then celebrated their achievement by feeding the crowd an exquisite buffet-style meal that included smoked pork ribs, loaded potato salad poppers, meatballs, and many more nutritious foods.
“Everything about the class was awesome, I can’t describe it any other way,” graduate Megan Scribner said while watching her young son Markie weave his way through guests enjoying the culinary treats. “We’re cooking and learning as a group, we’re packing it up, and then we’re giving it to families in need.”
CKA is a twelve-week program that prepares underemployed and unemployed Vermonters for careers in the food service industry. It is a statewide program of the Vermont Foodbank that operates in partnership with Capstone Community Action in Barre and with the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington.
Dave Eyler, or Chef Dave as he’s known to his students, has been teaching the Barre program for three years. He said he loves the change that he sees in his students during the course. Many of them, he said, come into the program from challenging situations. But as they work in the kitchen and provide meals for the community, they come out of the program with more than just cooking skills.
“The transformation is phenomenal, and I think you’ll see that today.”
Speaking to the graduates and attendees, Eyler elaborated on this point.
“Just last week we were talking about what you guys learned over the last 12 weeks,” Eyler told the audience. “Here are some of the things you said: I learned to be more confident. I’m building a foundation for learning. I no longer feel like I have to be right all the time. I found my voice, I’m literally louder and more confident. I’m giving back more in my community and I’m more aware of people’s needs. I’ve learned how to be less reactive. And my favorite one: I’m a winner.”
Along with the confidence boost, graduates often land jobs straight out of the program: Scribner starts work at Wayside Restaurant next week, and fellow grad Eli Oliver has started work at Montpelier’s Woodbelly Pizza.
“I grew up around a family that cooked and I loved to cook as a teenager, but I haven’t worked in a professional kitchen until now,” Oliver said. “This program has allowed me to step into a leadership role in the [Woodbelly Pizza] prep and field kitchens.”
Speaking before the ceremony as fellow classmates laid out trays of pastries and hors d’oeuvres, Oliver said the program had provided an opportunity to learn, to gain confidence, and to connect with the community. The meals the class prepared each day, Oliver said, were made from salvaged food, packaged up, and then delivered to the local food shelf to feed families facing hunger. And it’s a lot of food: the class prepared 5,926 meals over the course of the twelve-week program.
Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles told the graduates that completing the program showed their individual aspirations, but that they’d also learned the valuable life lesson of how to deal with people with compassion and love. They’d accomplished something big, he said, not just for themselves, but for the greater community as a whole.
“You have done a tremendous amount of work to end poverty and hunger,” Sayles said. “I know how challenging it has been, and you’ve accomplished a lot.”
As for Scribner, while she’s looking forward to her new position at the Wayside, there’s been a more immediate benefit for her and Markie.
“Now,” she said, “I actually make more homemade meals from scratch!”