This Culinary School Teaches Formerly Incarcerated People Knife Skills and Life Skills

Kitchens for Good accepts people from all backgrounds into its 12-week culinary school.

The 100 students in Kitchens for Good's 12-week culinary apprenticeship program don't have the kind of prior work experience or resumes you'd expect to find in a culinary school. Many of them don't have resumes at all-except those on file at police stations and jails around the country. But in Kitchen for Good's San Diego-based Project Launch program, a criminal record doesn't matter: all that matters is a desire to stay clean, hold down a job and help the nonprofit tackle issues of food waste, hunger and poverty in the community.

"Our culinary job training program serves men and women transitioning out of homelessness, foster care and incarceration," says Aviva Paley, co-founder and senior director at Kitchens for Good. "It's estimated that about 70 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. Of the 100 students we train per year, we have about an 87 percent success rate of our graduates remaining employed in the culinary and hospitality industry."

people sitting in class room of kitchens for good

"It's hard to find a job after prison"

That 87 percent success rate is an important metric. The students in the Project Launch program come from many different backgrounds. But they all know this: It's hard to find a job when you get out of prison.

"Once you're in the system, it's hard to get out of it. It's a revolving door," says James Sperry, a graduate of the program. "It was so hard for me to find a job, because my background would kill any chance I had. And that's what would lead me back to selling drugs, because it's a quick buck and I had to support myself."

It was the same for fellow graduate Melinda Rodriguez, who was in and out of prison for a decade due to her drug addiction.

"I've been to job interviews where, as soon as you tell them you've been incarcerated, that's it: interview over," she says. "They look down on us. They think of us as someone they don't want to take a chance on."

But at Kitchens for Good, founder and board member Chuck Samuelson does want to take a chance on people with less-than-savory backgrounds. Kitchens for Good's other initiatives to end poverty and reduce food waste are tackled head-on by the students in Project Launch, who learn culinary skills while supporting the organization's other social and community-based initiatives.

man and woman cooking together in kitchens for good

Knife skills, life skills and career training

Unlike most culinary schools, the learning doesn't stop when you hang up your apron and leave the kitchen. Participation in the tuition-free program also includes workforce readiness instruction, case management help and career coaching. At the end of the program, students graduate with a food handler card and a culinary apprenticeship certificate. Because Project Launch is a certified culinary apprenticeship program, students can also earn money by working for Kitchens for Good catering and events. And once students graduate, an open-door policy allows them to continue receiving social and career support from Kitchens for Good.

Using Kitchens for Good to launch a career in food

"I'd never accomplished anything other than doing a jail term, so graduating was a little bit scary," says Project Launch graduate Becky Arrollando. "But Kitchens for Good taught me that I'm not alone. Knowing that you have this family helped me push forward."

Arrollando is now a manager at a restaurant; Melinda Rodriguez is a sous chef at a tapas bar; James Sperry is a sous chef at a popular tavern.

"Kitchens for Good was a place where I was able to become something," Rodriguez says. "It gave me self-confidence and motivation. I was able to refine who I am today."

Sperry echoes her statement, saying, "It's changed my life in so many ways. What gives me the greatest pleasure is that people love the food I cook. Some of us want to change, we just need a little extra guidance. If food can change my life, I'm pretty sure it can change anybody's life."

Kitchens for Good is a 501(c)(3) and social enterprise based in San Diego, California. Its programs-including Project Launch-are aimed at breaking the cycles of food waste, poverty and hunger through programs in workforce training, healthy meals and social enterprise.

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