The Optimist View: Empowerment, skills training, and the fight to eradicate hunger

“Hunger is not an issue of charity. It is an issue of justice.” – Jacques Diou

By Amelia Buckley

Right now, 80 percent of food banks in the US are serving more people than they were at the same time last year. The pandemic has exacerbated the need for immediate food relief, but it has also brought an age old question back into the spotlight again: what does long-term hunger eradication look like? How do we go from feeding a family for a week to creating a system in which vulnerable individuals can lift themselves out of poverty? 

Aviva Paley, co-founder of Kitchens for Good ran into this dilemma pretty early on in her career in the nonprofit sector. 

Aviva Paley

She explains: “No amount of food is going to solve hunger. There is more than enough food in this country to feed everyone. The issue is poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and people cannot afford to buy that food and are having to make these terrible choices between food and rent or food and medicine.”

This quest for long-term hunger solutions is what led Kitchens for Good to break from the traditional food bank model. Although food pantries and drives serve a valuable purpose in communities where families are forced to choose between food and other necessities, Paley and co-founder Chuck Samuelson created their social entrepreneurship model to not only feed the community, but also offer restaurant industry job training to empower vulnerable workers. 

Kitchens for Good offers food and hospitality training for workers seeking to enter the restaurant industry, but lacking the technical skills to break into the market. In Paley’s words, the program offers “life skills and knife skills” to not only teach participants how to cook, but also about the nuances of the professional world like communication skills, punctuality, workplace behavior, accountability, financial literacy, and skills for coping with stressful situations. 

The second prong of the organization’s work called “Project Nourish,” is taking the meals that are prepared in training sessions and using them to feed community members in need. The ingredients that go into these meals are sourced with food waste in mind. They include surplus produce from farmers’ markets and imperfect produce rejected by wholesalers. During the pandemic, production of these community meals was scaled up from 2,000 meals per week to 15,000 in May and June. 

By reducing hunger, offering job skills training, and fighting food waste, Kitchens for Good checks all the boxes of a food-based nonprofit. Their food solutions span across the entire industry. 

80 percent of food banks in the US are serving more people than they were at the same time last year

These 20-week job training apprenticeships are specifically targeted at financially vulnerable community members or those who have long been deemed “unemployable” by the job market. This includes individuals who are unsheltered, were previously incarcerated, and those who were in foster care. These populations generally have unemployment rates between 30 and 70%. According to the National Institute of Health, 91% of people transitioning from incarceration experience food insecurity. 

Paley explains that many apprentices are preparing meals for people in situations that mirror their own. “For many of our students having faced hunger themselves, this part of the experience is a really meaningful one,” she says. 

Since Kitchens for Good’s inception six years ago, the program has trained over 300 people with 85% job placement rate in top restaurants and hotels. Many of their graduates have gone on to become restaurant managers and hire other apprentices to pay it forward. 

To fund the organization, Kitchens for Good started their own catering company to employ their graduates, use up even more surplus food, and generate a steady income to expand their training and food relief programs. 

Like most every non-profit, Kitchens for Good has taken a hit during the pandemic. As they worked to expand food relief efforts, they were forced to temporarily shut down training programs and faced financial roadblocks as their catering business came to a stand still. Like any resilient organization, they were forced to pivot. 

They hired back alumni and apprentices that had been furloughed to meet the increased demand for food aid and instituted smaller, socially distant classes to continue training safely. They are not running their catering business, but they are offering virtual, donation-based cooking classes to make up for some of the lost revenue. 

Amidst the unexpected hurdle, the team was not discouraged. “Despite the impact on the hospitality industry, we’re seeing that employers want to hire really motivated, quality, well-trained individuals to work in their kitchens,” says Paley. Moving forward, Paley says Kitchens for Good is working to ensure that society’s most marginalized are protected during and after the pandemic: “We feel it’s really critical that as we’re working to recover, that those who are furthest on the margins of society are not left out of that recovery.”

Fortunately, Kitchens for Good is not the only non-profit exploring more expansive hunger relief strategies. The Bread Project, based in Berkeley, California, offers eight-week food preparation and baking skills courses aimed at promoting financial independence and reducing California’s 46% recidivism rate.

These courses are targeted towards previously incarcerated individuals and the training programs are free for youths who are interested in participating. For previously incarcerated individuals, finding employment is particularly difficult, leading to high rates of hunger. The unemployment rate among previously incarcerated individuals is estimated to be over 27%. Offering tangible skills training and job placement breaks this vicious cycle of hunger, unemployment, and incarceration. 

Like Kitchens for Good, The Bread Project also offers professional development skills like resume writing and interview practice. In their 20 year history, they have trained over 2,000 people. 

1 in 9 people in the United States are food insecure, yet 40% of food produced goes to waste. This paradox highlights the fact that hunger is not a matter of quantity, but rather distribution. Unfortunately, food relief alone is not enough to eradicate hunger. Innovative programs, like Kitchens for Good and The Bread Project, are finding new ways to address hunger today while introducing change to reduce the structural shortcomings in society that lead to hunger in the first place. 

The old saying goes, “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” We need hunger relief strategies that address the root causes of hunger. Skills training, job placement, and improved food distribution efficiency are all immediate solutions we can implement to prevent future hunger. 

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