Second Harvest’s Culinary Training Program: Fighting Hunger & Feeding Hope

by Kim Prendergast Community Health & Nutrition Consultant, Feeding America

In Orlando, Florida, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida is not just feeding the community, but also feeding the hope of those who strive for a better life. Shaneka is a graduate of the food bank’s Culinary Training Program, a 16-week job training program providing culinary and life skills training needed to pursue a sustainable career in the food industry. “They took away my worries”, Shaneka says of the impact the program had on her life.

Shaneka was introduced to the food bank’s Culinary Training program by the Red Cross four years ago after experiencing a car fire. As a homeless mom with three children, the car wasn’t just transportation – it also served as the family’s home.

Shaneka needed to gain skills that would lead her to a new job, but most of all she needed people to support and believe in her as she rebuilt her life. “I wondered ‘What am I getting myself into?’ in the beginning, but then I took down my walls” and to let the staff – including Chef Izzy and Idalia help. The team at Second Harvest Food Bank didn’t just teach Shaneka to cook, but also worked with her to address many of the other challenges she was having. “They saw what the problems were and they helped me. Everything I needed, Second Harvest had! They helped me evolve into the young woman I am now.” By addressing basic needs like transportation, as well as working through skills such as goal setting and communication, Shaneka saw improvements in her life and in and outside of the kitchen.

After graduation from the Culinary Training Program, Shaneka didn’t have to go far for a job. The food bank was so impressed with her culinary skills and her positive attitude that she was hired as a production and catering cook for the Second Harvest Meals for Good program. Shaneka finds a sense of purpose working in a job where she’s cooking meals that feed children in the community. “I love everything about it – the people, the family here at the food bank, the energy in the kitchen, and giving back to the program that helped me.”

Four years after the car fire, Shaneka has found stability for herself and her kids. They live in a two-bedroom house and her son recently graduated from high school. “We now have a roof over our heads, a car in the driveway, food on the table and smiles on our faces. And I have a stable income. My smile is part of my uniform now.”

The Culinary Training Program at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida runs four classes of students every year, supporting dozens of students like Shaneka as they improve their job skills and pursue a career in the culinary and food service industry. After spending fourteen weeks together practicing their skills and making thousands of meals for the community, ninety-five percent of students have a job within three months after graduation. Around the country, 25 Feeding America food banks operate programs similar to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orlando’s Culinary Training Program.

Kim Prendergast supports Feeding America and its member food banks with partnership development, technical assistance and strategic consulting to strengthen health care partnerships and Community Kitchens as a means to improving access to healthy food and ending hunger.