22 October 2009

Cincinnati Cooks!

It is true that America is the land of opportunity. It is also true that some have more roadblocks to opportunity than others. Those who come from circumstances of inadequate parenting, mental illness or poverty, for example, are far more likely to end up "in the system" than others. While it may be morally convenient to brush off all unproductive and criminal behavior as poor personal choice, reality is not that simple and, in any case, ignoring the issue fails to address an issue that needs to be addressed.

Addressing this issue is the role of social service agencies and social welfare programs. While such programs are often criticized, at their best they give disadvantaged, underproductive citizens the means toward productivity, self esteem and economic self-sufficiency.

I took a tour of one such program, Cincinnati Cooks!, last week.

This is the motto of Cincinnati Cooks! It is an intense 10-week program sponsored by United Way and the Freestore Foodbank that teaches the skills needed to work in the food service industry. In addition to food preparation, students must also set tables, take orders, serve food and wash dishes. If it happens in a restaurant, they have to learn it. And that includes fancy French terminology... this is definitely the only place in the city where one might hear the phrases "state penitentiary" in one sentence and mis en place the next.

In addition to food prep training, the students are given ServSafe training which is a food safety course based on CDC guidelines. The course teaches the causes and prevention of foodborne illnesses and is a valuable asset for anyone seeking managerial work in the industry.

Before any culinary training can begin, however, the students must learn basic workplace skills that most of us take for granted but which many of them have not learned. The head teacher, Chef Jeff Pitts, explained that discipline and structure are key elements of the program. Students must arrive by 8 a.m. They must sit straight. They must dress in uniform. They must address everyone by title. They must behave professionally with other students whether they like them or not.

Ordinarily, one might expect the combination of militaristic rule structure and disaffected attitudes to result in high attrition. But in reality the opposite is true because of the presence of former students, including Chef Pitts himself. Graduates of the program return to provide mentoring, guidance and encouragement to current students. This interaction between students and graduates lets students see the life-changing results for themselves and keeps them in the program. As a result, it has a 90% graduation rate. Even more impressive is that just under 80% of graduates were still employed 5 years after graduation (at least when the economy was better).

I spoke with one graduate who expressed great satisfaction with the mentoring aspect because, unlike his regular job as a chef, mentoring had a "humanitarian" aspect of giving back to the community which is something he had never experienced before. This person had previously been in prison and couldn't get a job afterwards. He told me he was hired within two weeks of his graduation.

Students of the program serving at the cafeteria style lunch

Some of the day's offerings (not shown: all the fattening things I chose)

The tour included lunch so we sampled the students' work. I was particularly impressed with my entree, chicken stuffed with wild rice and mozzarella. The chicken was perfectly cooked: delicious, moist and tender. All the food was gustatorily and aesthetically pleasing so it should not have been a surprise to find out that Cincinnati Cooks! has a flourishing catering operation with selections for breakfast, lunch (including box lunches) and dinner. They do weddings and corporate events and provide 1000 lunches every day to low income schoolchildren.

I asked what Cincinnati Cooks! can do with additional resources. The answer, predictably enough, is that it can hire an additional teacher and take on more students. The program is already planning to move into a new building with a kitchen space dedicated to its catering operation which it hopes will expand and generate supporting revenue.

Crew works on the new Cincinnati Cooks! site on Central Parkway

Based on my observations, Cincinnati Cooks! is an exemplary social service program. It provides job skills, personal responsibility and financial stability to those who did not have them. In a strictly economic sense it is an outstanding investment in human capital because it converts an underproductive tax-consuming group into a productive taxpaying group. In a humanitarian sense it lays the foundation for personal pride and self-determination that many students feel for the first time. Such success does not happen by accident and United Way and Freestore Foodbank deserve accolades and gratitude for setting up this effective program that benefits the city.

1 comment:

L.Scott Palmer said...

A great program. Glad to have been there. Awesome program. The Chefs really care. I am thankful for the chance to attend.
Class #80 Rocks.