Foodlink’s Community Kitchen has been preparing meals for the hungry for 18 years, but it has grown to be so much more.
It has evolved from an antiquated food preparation cookery on Joseph Avenue to a shiny, ultra-modern facility at Foodlink’s Mt. Read Boulevard headquarters. Daily meal preparation has climbed from 3,500 a day to 5,000.
And the hope is that within the next three years, the addition of charter schools, early childhood centers and elderly care facilities to the delivery routes will push the daily meal total to 7,500.
“We’re preparing better produced, more healthy meals for our children,” Terra Keller, Foodlink’s chief operating officer, said. “Our mission is the health of children.”
But the kitchen is providing more than just nutritional meals to combat hunger in the community. There’s a two-fold purpose to the 28,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2016.
Through an innovative program, the Foodlink Career Fellowship, local hard-to-place and under-employed residents are learning lifetime culinary skills.
The hope is that after graduating from the nearly yearlong program, students will be prepared to fill middle-skill level jobs in the food preparation industry and move their way up the cooking ladder.
“As an employer, it’s easy to find people that want a job; it’s really hard to find people that can do a great job,” said John Emerson, vice president of prepared foods/merchandising for Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
The solution: the practical experience gained through Foodlink’s career empowerment initiatives, of which Wegmans was a prime supporter.
“You’re cutting a million onions,” said Jes Scannell, director of career empowerment initiatives for Foodlink. “That creates a skilled, real-world employee.”
The premise of the program is hardly unique. But across the country, similar skills training programs usually run for only 12 weeks. Being part of an initiative that spans the calendar—one with 170 hours of classroom training, 860 hours of on-the-job training, 50 hours of soft skills training and then 420 hours of a full-time externship with a Foodlink partner—prepares the students for employment success.
“When you’re making 4,000 meals a day, that’s a lot of practice,” Emerson said. “Our goal was, ‘How do we get them a job where their first-year performance review will have some velocity to it?’ ”
Prospective students must be nominated by a community-based partner of Foodlink. For this year’s initial class, only 12 were accepted. Nominators agree to maintain contact and support fellows throughout the year.
The career fellowship day runs from 8:30 a.m. to around 4 or 4:30 p.m. The first three months of the program are unpaid. Students then are on Foodlink’s payroll for the second and third quarters, with a partner paying for the fourth-quarter externship. Graduation is set for early July. The hope is that the second fellowship class will begin in April, Scannell said.
The program includes resume development, workplace readiness and interview skills. Foodlink partners such as Wegmans assist with mock interviews.
“Are you resilient in the face of rejection; how do you get along with co-workers; what could get in the way of employment? It’s all part of case management,” Scannell said.
The primary goal is for graduates to find middle-skill jobs “that allow for career mobility with an upward trajectory,” Keller said.
Foodlink’s full-time staff of around 20 operates the kitchen with the help of the fellowship participants. Meals are prepared one day and delivered the next. For example, meals made on Tuesday are delivered to clients on Wednesday.
Meals are delivered to about 40 sites that provide after-school programs, such as the City of Rochester’s R-Centers, as well as area daycare facilities. “For kids after school, you don’t always know if they get a healthy dinner, so this is another way to get them a healthy meal,” said Mark Dwyer, Foodlink communications manager.
There are both hot and cold meals coming out of the kitchen. The hot meal may be chicken with wild rice, sautéed carrots, a piece of fruit and milk. A cold meal could be a pasta salad or sandwich and side, meeting all the components of a reimbursable meal, and maybe more.
Whereas the No. 1 priority for a commercial entity is to make money, meaning minimum reimbursable meal standards may be in play, Foodlink is adamant about serving a wholesome meal that goes beyond simply hitting a government-established nutritional number.
“We’re really focused on providing the best quality meal for these kids,” Keller said. “It’s critical that the meals be as nutritious as possible. We’re focused on whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. We try to avoid preservatives.”
Thus, MSG (monosodium glutamate) and high fructose corn syrup are out. Potato chips and processed fruit cups floating in a sugar-based syrup are no-nos.
Variety also is important. For the lunch and dinner meals, there is a six-week rotation of 30 different meals. The breakfast and snack menu has a four-week rotation.
The choices change, too. Foodlink’s menu innovation committee often goes to the places meals will be served to test what kids like. “We want them to taste good to kids,” Dwyer said.
A branch of the community kitchen is Value Added Processing (VAP), where fresh, locally grown apples are washed, machine-sliced and packaged, and then moved on to eight distributors. Some bags have the Foodlink label, some have a private label.
The VAP is the one revenue-producing operation involving the kitchen. “It allows us to support our mission,” Keller said.
The varied components associated with the Community Kitchen make a significant impact.
“I just think it’s the greatest thing,” Emerson said, “and something Rochester should be very proud of.”