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The Vermont Foodbank and Central Vermont Community Action Council Serve Up a New Culinary Training Program in Downtown Barre

Jamie Eisenberg, Senior Chef Instructor, CVCAC Hal Cohen, Executive Director, CVCAC Michelle Wallace, Program Manager, The Vermont Foodbank
Jamie Eisenberg, Senior Chef Instructor, CVCAC
Hal Cohen, Executive Director, CVCAC
Michelle Wallace, Program Manager, The Vermont Foodbank

by Emily Kaminsky

Walking into Central Vermont Community Action Council’s new facility in downtown Barre, you would hardly know that in just seven months 11,000 pounds of food came through one door and went out another in the form of 33,000 prepared meal servings to people in need. For the first time in its 50-year history, Central Vermont Community Action Council (CVCAC) not only distributes groceries, baked goods and other essentials through its food shelf, but a wide assortment of prepared meals thanks to a unique educational program called the Community Kitchen Academy (CKA).

CKA is a 13-week, 9-credit basic food service skills course developed and offered by the Vermont Foodbank at the Chittenden Food Shelf and recently replicated in Barre in partnership with CVCAC. “They wanted to expand the program in Washington County and we were a natural partner,” says Hal Cohen, CVCAC’s executive director. “They essentially moved their entire kitchen from their Barre Town facility to CVCAC’s new facility.” That, plus equipment from LACE (a downtown Barre retail food business supported by CVCAC that ceased operations in 2011), helped CVCAC replicate the academy in Barre.

The program is free to students who are unemployed, underemployed, meet income eligibility thresholds or are part of other programs like the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation or Reach Up. Students receive practical hands-on experience in all aspects of cooking, as well as education on hunger relief, sustainability and the buy local movement. Already, CKA Barre has graduated two classes totaling 14 students, all of whom were looking to restart or start their careers in the food service industry and succeeded in completing this intense 30-hour-per-week job training program. The CKA has an 85 percent job placement rate for their graduates.

While CKA is mostly a job training program, it’s also a way to repurpose food that would otherwise go to waste. Ninety-five percent of the food used by CKA to train its students in the culinary arts is “rescued” by the Vermont Foodbank from grocery stores, bakeries and other food establishments. In addition, 75 percent of all of the produce rescued comes from area farms. CKA students transform this food into delicious single or double-serving packaged meals in CVCAC’s small but efficient full-scale production kitchen as part of their hands-on education. Packaged meals are then walked across the loading dock to be distributed to CVCAC food shelf clients that same day. “The program allows us to minimize the number of steps we would have to take to get food to families in need. The food stream becomes much more practical and accessible,” says Michelle Wallace, program manager at the Vermont Foodbank.

There is more to the program than food rescue according to Wallace. “This program has a transformative quality that is hard to describe. It’s workforce development; there’s a benefit to the environment; it’s higher education. At graduation, you see that there is an incredible impact on the individual student and their family. Graduates gain connections and social supports that weren’t there before,” she says.

Wendy Viola of Warren is one of them. Wendy learned about CKA through her Reach Up caseworker. It seemed like a great opportunity—she loves to cook and came from a family of restaurateurs. When she met “Chef Jamie,” CVCAC’s CKA senior chef instructor, she knew that it was the perfect opportunity. “Chef Jamie is amazing to be around. She makes the whole education process feel very natural. And, the program itself and the environment is all very conducive to learning,” beams Wendy, who graduated from CKA Barre in February and is now working for Cafe Provence on Blush Hill in Waterbury both in the front end of the house, and as a prep cook. “I feel successful and positive. Every morning, I not only get to choose which baked goods to offer, but I get to make them. It’s satisfying watching our customers enjoy the food I bake.” She has plans to become a full-time baker in the future and she has the skills to make it happen thanks to CKA.

Chef Jamie’s long-term goal for the program is to make the CKA Barre the go-to place for food service employers to find new employees. “We want local restaurants and food service businesses to use us as their primary place for new hires,” she says. Her message to area employers: “Instead of putting a job up on Craigslist, come to us first.” She also notes that CVCAC is seeking entrepreneurs to use the kitchen during off-hours.

According to Cohen, the CKA program fits right in with the mission of CVCAC. “We’re always looking for ways to help people get out of poverty. With this program, people get trained, learn a skill and get a job. The move to Barre gave us an opportunity to do a commercial kitchen and start this program,” he says. In fact, CVCAC’s move to downtown Barre from the Barre-Montpelier road is, in a sense, a homecoming, since the organization started in Barre City on Ayers Street almost 50 years ago. “It’s like coming back home,” says Cohen. CVCAC decided to build a new home in downtown Barre after it had outgrown its old home. The move also made sense because over 50 percent of the people served by CVCAC in Washington County reside in the Barre area. Since opening its doors in July 2013, the demand for services has increased. “We’ve seen a 100 percent increase in the number of people we’ve been serving in the food shelf compared to the previous year,” says Cohen.

Located on Gable Place off of Granite Street in the old P&S Furniture building, the new CVCAC facility is 24,000-square feet and cost $4.9 million, most of which was spent with local contractors and suppliers. “This is now a community asset, we think for a really long time,” says Cohen.

The next CKA Barre starts July. For more information on CKA Barre, please call 802-479-1053 or email cka@cvcac.org.