Since 2001, more than 4,000 people have completed Cincinnati Cooks, a 10-week culinary job-training program through the Freestore Foodbank for underemployed or unemployed residents of the city.
Freestore reports that one in six residents in the tri-state area of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are at risk of hunger. Cincinnati Cooks was developed as a way to provide labor for restaurants in the city’s growing food scene while enabling individuals to feed their families and get on their feet.
The program is held from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and new classes begin every five weeks. Chefs train the students on skills they need for gaining employment in food service, equipping them to be well-versed in cooking and baking, as well as kitchen management, banquet service, and food preparation and storage safety.
More than the students benefit, though. The 1,000 meals the students prepare each day are distributed to kids in 20 counties through the food bank’s Kids Cafe program, which serves an after-school meal to children who are at risk of hunger. Cincinnati Cooks students can take meals home to their own families each day as well.
In addition to providing training and meals, Cincinnati Cooks staff and volunteers assist students with daily transportation to class, resumes and interview skills. “We want to give the students a well-rounded education,” says Anthony Lavatori, Freestore’s director of workforce initiatives and social enterprise.
At graduation, Cincinnati Cooks students receive a chef coat and pans, and a local donor provides a set of chef knives to each graduate who enters the workforce. Volunteers follow up with graduates and report that 75 percent of them are working.
“This isn’t ‘Iron Chef,’”Lavatori says. “We don’t put our students down or yell at them. It’s about building them up.”