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Foodlink creating recipe for jobs

Organization working with firms on a workforce development program

Foodlink Inc. executive director Julia Tedesco with Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer. (Photo by Kate Melton)

Foodlink Inc. executive director Julia Tedesco with Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer. (Photo by Kate Melton)

When Thomas Ferraro founded a food bank in Rochester in the late 1970s, he envisioned an organization that would not only feed Rochester’s hungry but also teach valuable workforce skills and create jobs. He imagined a place that would generate wealth and opportunity and help pull people out of poverty.

He was ahead of his time.

“Early on, Tom Ferraro recognized the opportunity that when you’re running a full-service kitchen and putting out thousands of meals a day that you have an opportunity to train people in that,” said Julia Tedesco, Foodlink Inc.’s executive director.

Four decades later, the nonprofit organization is working with local businesses to initiate a workforce development program.

“We had fits and starts of workforce development programs over the years,” said Tedesco, including a Work Experience Program with RochesterWorks Inc., as well as grants from the U.S. Department of Labor for short-run training programs. “Nothing really comprehensive and nothing that we felt really afforded people a real pathway to sustainable employment.”

Foodlink officials hope to have a culinary training program in place by early next year. The workforce development program would be the third facet of the organization’s competencies.

At its core, Foodlink, founded by Ferraro in 1978, provides emergency food to human service agencies, food pantries, senior centers and daycares in the 10-county Rochester and Finger Lakes region. Last year, Foodlink distributed 17.4 million pounds of food, including 4.9 million pounds of produce.

Secondary to its food distribution, Foodlink provides educational programs and has a farm on Lexington Avenue that is run by refugee families. The organization also runs a Curbside Market, which Tedesco calls a farmer’s market on wheels.

“In that sense, sort of pushing the envelope in terms of food banking,” Tedesco said. “That’s not charitable food distribution; that’s creating access points for individuals to purchase affordable, largely locally grown fruits and vegetables.”

In June, Foodlink opened a modern kitchen at its 28,000-square-foot headquarters on Mount Read Boulevard. The organization received funding for the $4.9 million project from Greater Rochester Health Foundation, Empire State Development Corp. and the Wegmans Family Foundation, among others.

“Our primary goal for the kitchen was to relocate it under one roof and to invest in the infrastructure we needed to expand our services,” Tedesco said. “And we thought … the workforce development, a couple years down the line, once we were up and running in the new kitchen, we would do that.”

But the training initiative gained traction when Wegmans Food Markets Inc. chairman Danny Wegman, a longtime supporter of Foodlink, toured the facility before its opening.

“He really emphasized the need for individuals with middle skills, that middle-skills group in the culinary field and the food industry, and that there was a high demand for it,” Tedesco said. “And he really urged us to think about that workforce development program and to make it more of a priority.”

When Wegman committed to investing in Foodlink’s new kitchen, Tedesco and her team decided they had a one-of-a-kind opportunity with the facility to build the type of culinary and food industry training program that was lacking in the region.

“There are other culinary skills programs out there,” Tedesco acknowledged. “But that’s primarily entry level, minimum wage jobs.”

Training individuals for higher level positions within the food industry quickly became Foodlink’s goal.

“To develop a program where people could gain some skills to really enter at a rung above entry-level jobs and to have a pathway to a living wage career, where there’s some mobility in their career and not just static employment there,” Tedesco explained of the focus.

And the workforce development program does not have to focus solely on culinary jobs, said Mitch Gruber, Foodlink’s chief programs officer.

“We have an opportunity to build a whole host of food industry jobs,” Gruber said. “The food industry is one of the biggest sectors in our region.”

Foodlink has had businesses tour the new kitchen and express an interest in hiring individuals trained there. Gruber noted middle-skill jobs could include food and beverage manufacturing and warehousing, among other things.

“We have not had a single employer in here yet who has said, ‘We’re doing fine on jobs,’” Gruber said. “Everybody needs more middle-skill folks for their businesses.”

Foodlink has applied for a three-year, $3 million grant through the New York Upstate Revitalization Initiative that would allow the organization to develop the training program and put through a small pilot class as early as 2018, Tedesco said.

Foodlink is hoping that with those dollars the program can be offered with a stipend that will help students with transportation and child care.

“One of the asks is to be able to get a 12- to 18-person passenger van so we can do a significant amount of field trips,” Gruber said. “We want all of the folks that are coming through this program to have an opportunity to choose their own career path. So we want to make sure this is a very rich, experiential program as well.”

The workforce development program would take place in 12-week units with 15 to 18 individuals per program, Tedesco said. And, while culinary in nature, the program also would offer some soft skills, including literacy and numeracy, coaching and counseling.

The Foodlink program makes sense, said John Emerson, Wegmans vice president of prepared foods/merchandising, because the organization’s kitchen already is being used for food preparation.

“If you’re operating a culinary program, you can show someone how to butcher a chicken maybe one time or two times, but you can’t just get a bunch of food, make it and throw it away,” Emerson said. “That’s just not sustainable. So if you’re taking a culinary program, how do you get practice?”

For two years, Emerson was part of a team working with area economic development agencies that discussed ways to develop middle skills within the community. They defined middle skills as something that does not require more than a year or two of college or trade school.

Emerson and others approached Foodlink with an idea for training in the organization’s kitchen, which produces 4,000 meals a day.

“We went to them and challenged them to do more in the way of career development,” Emerson recalled. “They have 4,000 meals a day that they produce right now. That represented 4,000 meals a day of practice for people to learn, which the colleges don’t have.”

Emerson said officials from Barilla America Inc., Palmer Food Services Inc. and others have encouraged and backed the project and have committed to hiring students who have completed the workforce development program.

Why?

“Because we need to find more qualified people,” Emerson said. “This is a big industry. This is a breadbasket here in the Rochester/Finger Lakes area. We’ve got wine, micro-breweries, so much farming and agriculture. This should be like the Napa Valley of the East. Food should be the thing that nourishes our whole community in so many ways.”

To that end, Wegmans has loaned Foodlink one of its operations managers to help work on developing the program and one of Wegmans’ regional executive chefs is helping with the curriculum, Emerson said.

“So our role right now is cheerleaders, supporters, advisers, mentors and ultimately the customer,” Emerson said. “In the end we’ll hire people out of these programs. And we need more and more employers to step up and be willing to support this cause.”

For Foodlink, the workforce development program is mission aligned, Tedesco said, because the agency has a built-in demand for help preparing meals and leveraging food in a multitude of ways to build the regional economy.

“Obviously the core of our mission is to end hunger, and if you can train people and get them into that sustainable, living-wage job, then that’s what will ultimately shorten the emergency food lines,” Tedesco said.

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021

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