Prep School

This stellar example of job training boasts a 91 percent overall success rate

by Rosie Wolf Williams

vtfoodbankJohn Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank since 2009, has guided the evolution of the organization’s Community Kitchen Academy, an intensive, 13-week college-level culinary course open to unemployed and underemployed people committed to personal improvement.

Food brings us all together — from the planting and gleaning to preparation and presentation to sharing and consuming. The Community Kitchen Academy (CKA), a Vermont Foodbank partnership, nurtures success on all levels of community through this sacred connection of food.

An intensive 13-week college-level culinary course, CKA is open to unemployed and underemployed persons who are committed to personal improvement. The program’s operating expenses, totaling approximately $245,000 per kitchen, are supported through partnerships, grants, and fundraising. In operation since 2009, CKA partners with the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington and, more recently, with Capstone Community Action in Barre.

Classes are generally capped at 12 students, who are eligible for nine academic transfer credits from the Vermont State Colleges office of external programs. CKA graduates are ServSafe-certified (a recognized food service standard) and have developed skills in the culinary arts as well as goal setting, interviewing, resume writing, conflict management, and budgeting. The program has experienced a 91 percent overall success rate, with 88 percent job placement among 2014 graduates.

John Sayles, CEO of Vermont Foodbank, has attended all but two of the program’s 13 graduation ceremonies since 2009, when he was named CEO. “The students look a little bit shell-shocked, but I know what they’ve been through. Their families and friends are there, and their kids. Some of the student speakers have stood up and said, ‘I’ve never felt like I succeeded in anything in my life until this.’ It inspires me. Everyone has the capacity to succeed and to do amazing things in their life. They just need the opportunity to make that happen.”

Sayles, a Maryland native, graduated from Frostburg State College with a degree in political science, and went on to earn a J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1992. After working for a judge and a law firm, he began working at Maryland Public Service Department as utility regulator attorney. But in 1999 he applied for a job at the Vermont Public Service Department. His fiancée, Shannon Hepburn, had a grandmother who lived in New Hampshire, and loved New England.

“The first time I was in Vermont was for my job interview at the Public Service Department,” he says. “They raked me over the coals to make sure that I really was willing to move to Vermont to live here. This is home. I’d never go back.” He and Hepburn married the same year. They live in Montpelier with their 11-year-old son, Cabot.

Eventually, Sayles moved to the Agency of Natural Resources as planning and policy chief and later as deputy secretary. Ten years of high-level government service left him yearning for a change, but he wanted to continue helping and serving others. He had applied to the Vermont Foodbank in 2007 but was not hired. He reapplied when the opportunity came up again in 2009, and came on board as CEO.

A national organization of food banks called Feeding America had a kitchen academy template in place and encouraged other organizations to plan similar programs. The Foodbank had implemented the idea in 2002, using the kitchen at the Vermont Foodbank, but the location was inconvenient and challenging for students, and was shuttered in 2004.

In 2009, Chris Meehan, chief community impact officer, suggested a partnership with Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington. It had a kitchen in place and an ideal location. Now the challenge was how to find potential students. He wanted to offer a program that would give a diverse group of participants a chance to overcome the issues they faced and gain confidence in order to succeed post-graduation.

First-year funding came from the Department of Labor, which, along with Vermont’s Reach Up program referred students early on. Now the Foodbank also advertises through other venues because the program is more established. “Our chef-instructors know when they interview people [if they are] the type of people who are going to succeed in our program,” says Sayles.

Within three years, the program had found a footing, and it seemed ready for expansion. Sayles heard that Capstone Community Action (then Central Vermont Community Action Council) had plans to build a new facility in Barre. He knew Barre was a prime location for CKA, and he set up a meeting with Hal Cohen, Capstone’s executive director. Cohen immediately embraced the idea. “He saw how this could really fit in with their mission of transitioning people from poverty to sustainability,” says Sayles.

Chef Jamie Eisenberg moved from her position at the Burlington facility to act as chef-instructor in the Barre facility when it opened in 2013. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Rhode Island School of Design, she followed her passion for the culinary arts and graduated from New England Culinary Institute in 1987. After several years in the industry, she felt a strong desire to help others in a nonprofit atmosphere. The job opportunity at CKA appeared in Burlington in 2009, and it was a perfect fit for her.

“We offer a job training program for people who are looking to get a jump-start on a career, hopefully in food service, but really any career,” explains Eisenberg. “We want to try to help them create a more sustainable foundation for their own success. The other part of our mission is about rescuing food, or repurposing it.”

Food shelves typically offer fresh produce that requires trimming or preparation of some sort; CKA students create ready-to-eat healthful alternatives for those who may not have a kitchen or the time or knowledge to prepare the produce. The Burlington kitchen has a dining service that uses the prepared food, and both kitchen locations prepare and distribute packaged portions.

James Consentino, who followed Eisenberg as chef-instructor in Burlington, has earned Pro Chef II certification through the Culinary Institute of America and is a Certified Chef de Cuisine. After graduating from Southern New Hampshire University in 2003, he worked as a pastry chef for a while before joining Aramark at Johnson State College, rising from baker to food production manager to assistant director over 10 years.

“CKA has changed lives!” Consentino exclaims. “I have worked with students who were homeless and now hold a full-time job with a salary and housing. Also, my students can qualify for college credits. Some of my most exciting times at CKA have been hearing from past graduates and the success they are having.”

The biggest challenge, along with funding, is for the students themselves, says Eisenberg. “The students have some life challenges and not a lot of support. So something that you or I might find as just a little bump in the road, they might see as a giant roadblock. Things like health, child care, and transportation are some of the obstacles to their success.”

Not all students can overcome the problems they face after entering the rigorous 13-week course, but Kristin Hall is a CKA success story. A single mother of four children under the age of 6, she worried that she would not be able to complete the class. She wanted to be able to go to work but remain active in her children’s daily lives. At times, it seemed to Kristin that even the solutions were insurmountable problems.

“I expressed a lot of my concerns,” says Hall, “about having four children: ‘What if they get sick? What if I can’t complete the 13 weeks?’ She told me, ‘We’re not going to let you fail.’ I said, ‘I can’t work in a restaurant. I can’t work nights and I can’t work weekends. I have kids.’ She said, ‘There are lots of other jobs.’ She put my mind at ease.”

Hall practiced her skills at home, adding class recipes to her family menus. “For Thanksgiving we made flaky biscuits,” she says. “And we made them as a family. I was practicing what I was learning in class and hanging out with my kids, and having all these new experiences with them.”

Hall had a job waiting for her when she graduated in February of this year, but the hours conflicted with her role as mother. She left the position and did a few odd jobs until Eisenberg called her and told her of a position that was available at Capstone. “I had my resume in hand and showed up 15 minutes later,” she says.

“As a student of CKA I was in the food shelf packaging food and interacting with the community every day for 13 weeks. So I am able to give back now. I’m actually the person at the desk welcoming people in, making sure these people understand that CKA takes rescued food and feeds the community. I get to give back 110 percent of what was given to me when I needed it most.”

Unlike NECI graduates, CKA graduates rarely leave the state after they finish their coursework. “They are strong hires; they show up and do the job and are willing to learn. They want to stay in Vermont, close to home,” says Eisenberg.

Sayles sees the importance of CKA as a method of food distribution as well as a forward-thinking opportunity for other Vermont businesses. “We have to be efficient and effective or we can’t rely on those donations to come in. And this program is a great marriage, creating an environment for business people to have the best employees that they can have. The thing that’s going to end hunger is going to be everybody being able to support their families by themselves. The more that we can do within our mission to support a stronger overall economy, the better. Food brings everybody together. On every level.” •