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Hunger Beat

Connecting neighbors to life-changing employment

Harold Smith has a way of defying expectations. When he was a young boy, doctors told his mother he wouldn’t live to see his 12th birthday. He’s now 34.

When it seemed like his health issues, including debilitating back problems, would restrict Smith to a lifetime at home, he signed up for the Food Depository’s Workforce Development Hospitality Training program, and landed his first job at age 33. The economic impact of that job allowed him to move into his first apartment at age 34.

“I feel like I can take on the world now,” Smith said.

A thriving wage

Smith was drawn to the Food Depository’s hospitality training program because cooking was a source of joy during the years he was living at home, experiencing health issues and caring for his ailing grandfather.

a room full of adult students

Harold Smith (third from left facing the camera) listens as Chef Emily Cook addresses the class.

Over the four-week course, participants receive training in kitchen safety, sanitation, barista and beverage service, knife skills, customer service and nutrition. Students also earn key hospitality industry certifications and attend workshops on resume building, financial health, career coaching and job interviews.

The goal for each participant is a job in the hospitality industry earning a thriving wage, part of the Food Depository’s commitment to addressing the root causes of hunger – poverty, systemic inequity and structural racism.

When Smith’s back started spasming during a kitchen tour on the first day of class, the Food Depository team adapted the course so he could remain. “He told us, ‘Nobody wants this more than me. I’m willing to fight,’” said Anne Kearney, senior manager of workforce development.

“As soon as we met him, we knew he had a lot to offer a potential employer,” Kearney said.

a chef talks to a group of cooking students

Participants appreciate all the hands-on opportunities in the kitchen.

Wraparound support

Like with Smith, the program instructors work hard to tailor the course to each student’s needs and situation, including addressing any barriers to successful employment. The team has helped participants increase their digital literacy, find childcare during their work shifts, earn their GED or connect with resources to establish stable transportation or housing.

“There's a lot of wraparound support so that it's a full preparation experience,” said Kearney, explaining that the Food Depository is grateful for partnerships with multiple agencies that provide the students essential resources.

adults students learn computer skills

Participants have access to training in digital literacy.

Participants go through a rigorous application process for the paid course to be sure they’re ready for the commitment. Each cohort is kept to 12 students to enable individualized support, and there is often a waiting list.

Chef Emily Cook, food handler and production instructor, sees the program’s flexibility with each student and the way the program has changed over time as a positive. “I think it’s a strength of our workforce development program that it’s always in flux – because the food industry is always in flux, inflation is always in flux, the needs of the students are always in flux.”

A chance to flourish

Throughout the course, Food Depository instructors watched Smith soak up every training and opportunity. “I saw that young man flourish,” said Karen Gunn, associate manager of employment partnerships, who serves as employment coach and essential skills instructor.

“I still get goose pimples thinking about how he just lit up. The more he engaged, the more he wanted to engage," Gunn said.

“In the very beginning, he may have seen himself as being less than because he had never worked before, but he didn't allow that to shape what he was going to do in the next stages.”

The Food Depository team loves seeing what happens when students gain access to essential resources and training not always available in every community, and when participants approach work holistically and with longevity in mind. Some students change years-long patterns of unemployment or underemployment, a shift that often brings positive ripple effects throughout families.

students proudly hold the certificates they earned

Class graduates pose with the hospitality industry certifications they earned during the class.

“It’s amazing giving somebody a food handler certificate knowing it’ll change their life, and potentially generational lives,” Chef Cook said.

Control and confidence

About a month after his course ended, Smith started a job at the front desk of a behavioral health clinic, performing administrative duties and helping patients. It wasn’t the food industry job he once dreamed of, but it proved to be a better fit for Smith. He can stay seated, and he enjoys interacting with the patients. He loves that some of them now request his help when they call.

“The job means everything to me because I didn’t think I could help anybody,” Smith said.

When he received his first paycheck, he took a picture of it. He said it gave him more control of his life. “I don't have those limitations of having to wait till next month when I get my next disability check to do every little thing, even something as simple as needing more cleaning supplies for the house.”

adult students in a classroom, a few raising their hands

Karen Gunn shares job readiness skills with the class.

Smith has now been in his job for a year and just received a positive performance review. “I didn't think I would ever get a job, and I didn't think I would be this good at it. It really showed me that I can have a job and earn every dime. I can be proud of that,” he said, adding his gratitude for the program.

“I still think about every moment with that team and my classmates. I needed the confidence they gave me to know I could do this. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.”

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