CKA Provides Culinary Training and the Opportunity to Give Back

For Barre resident Amanda Alexander, pursuing her dream has given her so much more than just the chance to do what she loves. She’s been able to give back to her community at the same time.

“I talked to some people…because they saw me walking home and they were like ‘the food you make is really good, thank you for making us dinner and we really appreciate it.’ It was really sweet of them,” Amanda said. “I went back and I told Chef Joey that it made me feel really good, and when I go to bed it makes me feel like I put into the world and I did some good.”

As a student in the Community Kitchen Academy (CKA) program, Amanda said this wasn’t a unique experience for her over the past few months. Throughout the program, she said, the ability to give back to her community by preparing food such as Coconut Chicken Stir Fry for her neighbors facing hunger made her feel good. So good, in fact, she’s continuing to work in the kitchen with Chef Joey preparing meals for the food shelf.

“She’s a workhorse, I love her in the kitchen,” Chef Joey said. “She soaks me up like a sponge. She produces for me and puts out the work at the same time, so for a chef instructor, she’s like the ultimate thing because she’s very raw and very green, but she loves it. I can teach her anything and she remembers it and retains it and does it…she’s a huge asset to have around Capstone.”

The CKA program operates in partnership with Capstone Community Action in Barre and Feeding Chittenden in Burlington. Students in the program undergo extensive culinary training and graduate with the skills required to work in the food and beverage industry in a number of roles. Since 2009, CKA has graduated more than 270 students who’ve prepared more than 500,000 meals for those facing hunger.

Photo of Amanda working in the kitchen at Capstone Community Action

Amanda putting together a serving of roast pork and greens for distribution through Capstone’s food shelf.

As a job training program, CKA’s success rate in moving students through the program and directly into jobs is significant; ninety-one percent of graduates have successfully found employment in the culinary industry. And for Amanda, the program was just the right fit at just the right time. After getting, as she puts it, “mixed up in the wrong lifestyle,” Amanda said she learned about Capstone Community Action and CKA. She said it had always been a dream of hers to cook and eventually run her own food truck, and so the culinary job training program was a great opportunity to take her life in a new direction. She applied, was accepted, and started earlier this year.

Then Covid-19 hit, and four classes in the pause button was pressed on CKA.

“You know, I had students after four days when I told them that [class was going to be cancelled] they started to cry. After four days. I was like, whoa,” Chef Joey said. But when a call from the Foodbank came through asking her what she wanted to do, Chef Joey was ready. “I said I think I’m going to try to keep them engaged somehow, all 14 of these students.”

Thanks to a quick pivot and support from Capstone Community Action, Chef Joey continued the program online. Using e-books and online platforms, students picked up the nuts and bolts of culinary training at home with Chef Joey assigning projects and creating grocery lists and providing kits for students to pick up.

Then the experience shifted again, as it has for many during the pandemic. Over the summer Capstone Community Action took on a contract to feed the homeless staying in the local hotels around Washington County. According to Chef Joey, CKA became a mass-production kitchen in which she and her students cranked out 200 dinners and 150 breakfasts each day. That kitchen experience, and the personal gratification that came with it, was great, Amanda said.

“I really liked [preparing meals] for the homeless,” she said. “It made me feel good at night kind of like to feed the homeless people, to have like a purpose, kind of, to do something good for somebody.”

Amanda said that having been homeless, she’s experienced not having enough to eat, and she’s grateful to have the opportunity to learn and to help others at the same time.

“Ever since then I just really wanted to be able to give something back to people,” Amanda said. “Ever since I had to go through that and experience being homeless and being in a tough spot, because no one wants to be there, no one wants to feel that, and on top of that, no one wants to not have something to eat. Because it’s really tough. It was a really good experience being in Community Kitchen. It taught me a lot.”

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