Food Bank Preps Needy For Culinary Careers There are 200 community food banks in the U.S. providing free groceries to the needy. About two dozen of them, including one in Hillside, N.J., run community kitchens that train people for careers in the culinary arts.
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Food Bank Preps Needy For Culinary Careers

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Food Bank Preps Needy For Culinary Careers

Food Bank Preps Needy For Culinary Careers

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In some food bank kitchens, chefs are not only preparing meals for the needy, they're training people for careers in the culinary arts.

Jon Kalish visited one such food bank in Hillside, New Jersey.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The cavernous Community FoodBank of New Jersey is the size of seven football fields. Warehouse workers scoot around on forklifts moving palates of donated food destined for local food pantries. A large state of the art kitchen is bustling with activity. About 20 students at the Food Service Training Academy are preparing a special lunch for FoodBank employees.

ROBERT MOSELY: Right here, we have a ground veal. It's a sweet and sour plum meatball.

KALISH: Twenty-eight-year-old Robert Mosely hopes to be a pastry chef someday.

MOSELY: Before I came here, I was doing a little painting, a little construction. But I find I have a greater passion inside the kitchen.

KALISH: Mosely and his fellow students spend most of the day in the kitchen. Executive chef Paul Kapner says the free 14-week training program is rigorous, only about half of the students who start will graduate.

PAUL KAPNER: It's a real working atmosphere. Day one, you're in that kitchen and you're humping it because I want them to be ready for the field. They're going to be on their feet all day long. They're going to have chefs yelling at them. And that's what they have to get used to.

KALISH: And Kapner gets results. About two-thirds of the trainees find work within three months of graduation. Kapner says many of his graduates take jobs with corporate cafeteria contractors, like Sodexo, because they need health insurance.

KAPNER: We try to steer our students where there's health benefits. A lot of our employees that we deal with are in major national corporations where there's room for advancement. In the banks and the law firms, the hospitals in the area - they're all corporate cafeterias.

KALISH: Some of the participants have criminal records, but Kapner says that in the six years he's been running the program he's never had a problem with anyone acting out. One of the ex-offenders is Robert Counts who become a certified culinarian. He attended the Food Service Training Academy while living in a halfway house after prison.

ROBERT COUNTS: Suddenly I'm free and I'm wondering what the hell I'm going to do. And I know I like cooking. This opportunity suddenly falls in my lap. Of course I seized it.

KALISH: Counts works in the FoodBank kitchen preparing meals for low-income residents. Ada Martinez, another graduate, works as a line cook in a local restaurant. She gives the Food Service Training Academy high marks.

ADA MARTINEZ: It gave me confidence that I didn't have. They helped me distinguish what fresh herbs could go really nice with what meat. Now, I'm here and I'm learning what wines can go with what meats. I love to learn. I'm almost 40 and I want to learn more. I want to cook. I love it.

KALISH: Martinez's husband also graduated from the Food Service Training Academy. A new class will begin training in early December.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.


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