Not everyone gets a second chance, but for 350 students and counting, that's exactly what happens in Second Helpings' culinary training program. Working within their community, students from all different backgrounds are welcomed into this food rescue organization. Director of Training Chef Carl Conway wants to turn out the best students he can, all while helping to eradicate food waste in Indianapolis.
Second Helpings, an 11-year-old not-for-profit, is trying to change the way Indianapolis residents look at food rescue and job opportunity. Every city struggles with poverty and hunger while most food-related businesses struggle with food waste. Second Helpings is a marriage of solutions. Feed the hungry with rescued food. Provide job training to decrease poverty.
Second Helpings called on three local chefs, Kristen Cordoza, Bob Koch and Jean Paison. Working in the food service industry, they saw a shocking amount of food waste. They also saw the need for well trained, hard-working employees.
According to the USDA, 27 percent of food produced in a year is thrown away (see sidebar). Most of that food is completely edible, it's just been "over produced or over prepared," says Director of Operations Nora Spitznogle (Editors note: Spitznogle is a frequent contributor to NUVO's Music section
). Often times, grocery stores remove older products from shelves once new products come in, meaning food that has not even reached the expiration date is tossed. This happens in the restaurant industry as well.
Since its inauguration in 1998, Second Helpings has collected 11 million pounds of food, provided nearly 4.5 million meals and graduated more than 350 adults from their Culinary Job Training Program. And they're just getting started.
A passion that inspires
From the outside, you couldn't tell the Second Helpings headquarters apart from a warehouse except for the small logo welcoming you. Once inside, you are greeted with multicolored walls and open spaces. The community of friendly faces they see every day cheers guests, volunteers, students and employees. Toward the back of the building, volunteers for hunger relief assemble meals. The kitchen is equipped with restaurant-style equipment acquired mostly through donation. Volunteers are bustling through this area cooking, packing and having a genuinely good time.
The warehouse area is also back here. This is where all the raw food product is gathered and organized. This space also contains the vans used to deliver food to hundreds of community agencies.
Nearby is the dining room, where students get to showcase their talents, and the student kitchen, which, like the volunteer assembly kitchen, is made up of mostly donated restaurant-quality equipment.
Food waste runs parallel to poverty. The number of hungry people increases when nothing is done to bridge the gap between the amount of food produced and prepared and what is actually consumed. If people at the poverty level can't find work, they can't make money or get the specialized training they need to move up the financial ladder. They, like our wasted food, are stuck, underused, undervalued and underproductive.
Conway is working to change that.
Conway is a big man. He stands above the students he mentors and most of the employees at Second Helpings. His booming voice can be heard bellowing off walls and windows, and his personality is just as bold. He uses his Army background to instill discipline.
And he smiles the whole time he does it.
Like the students that he teaches Conway needed a second chance. Conway grew up with a love for cooking, but life took him another way. After dropping out of Yale while studying engineering, Conway turned to the Army, where he served for 22 years in both nursing and transportation. He worked teaching jobs in universities and eventually wound up as culinary supervisor for Shop-At-Home Television Network. But he wasn't happy. Eventually, he found a home at Second Helpings. Conway may not have a culinary degree, but he had something Second Helpings was looking for: passion. And it's Conway's passion that inspires students that are in need of direction daily. Conway has been where these students are coming from.
Having grown up in poverty, Conway can relate to the students' backgrounds, but he also knows there is a way out. "A lot of my folks expect employers to overlook their past, but they want to use their past as an excuse. You can't have it both ways. It either matters or it doesn't. It's only an obstacle because they made it that way," he says.
The job training at Second Helpings provides students with the skills they need to have a second chance at success. They graduate from the 10-week program not only with culinary training, but attitude adjustments. "The No. 1 tool that I use is what I call attitude adjustment. I try to teach people to have a professional presence all the time, and also to not let little obstacles become big ones. A lot of my folks are so used to dealing with obstacles by avoiding them. But there will always be obstacles, things will never be perfect ... bottom line is, you've got a job to do. I always learned love was tough anyway. A lot of my folks are so used to having explanations accepted for why they can't do something. It's not going to happen here, you have to perform. If you can't perform, I'm sorry, come back when you can," Conway says. "Take away their old identity, give them a new one."
Conway is working to give students the tools to be able to manage themselves and make positive decisions. The program reinforces this by giving students non-negotiable standards for themselves. Students are required to be drug- and substance-free, be in a stable living environment and be capable of self-management. They also must score at least 70 percent on the pre-admission exam, including reading, math and retention skills. If any of these standards cannot be met, students are removed from the program but referred to institutions that can help them reach these standards, such as rehabilitation programs, Alcoholics Anonymous and remedial math and reading tutoring.
"That's what Second Helpings is, we have rules and standards that are non-negotiable, but we are flexible in the way we get everyone to be able to reach those standards," Conway says.
Students often come from backgrounds where they never knew they had choices. "[Students] don't know that they have options and I like the fact that people come here and find out they have options. They've always been here, I just point out the options that they have," Conway says.
Spitznogle echoes this sentiment with regard to job placement saying, "[Students] leave with a great sense of choice. They don't have to say yes right away, they can compare. It's the first time a lot of them realize they have a choice."
Conway adds, "What I teach them is if you've got the skills, there is nothing you can't do with [them]. The biggest change I hope we make is that they learn they are not limited, their background does not limit them. Your skill and how hard you are willing to work is the only thing that is going to limit you. It teaches them that there are opportunities out there they can't be afraid to take. Nobody else can stop them from doing what they want to do but themselves. Get out of your own way, stop blocking your own progress."
Learning to grow up
Sometimes it takes two or three times for students to complete the program, but each time they enroll, they come to understand the drastic life changes they are approaching. Graduate Tiera Freeman says the best part of the program is learning to grow up, to manage time and to take personal responsibility, "[Learning] to be on time is so important," Freeman says.
Conway is familiar with this situation. "You can't keep one foot where you are and still keep moving forward, but I have a lot of folks who have a hard time letting go of the lifestyle, the choices they've made," he says. Conway insists on not making excuses. "It's easy in the name of being compassionate to let people get away with less than their best, and it's tempting but I can't do it. There are other good cops, but I'm the bad cop," he says.
One of the hardest lessons learned in the culinary training program has nothing to do with food, but rather with self-understanding and self-respect. "You don't have to be the best cook in the world to be a successful chef, it's about the attitude. I'd take attitude over aptitude anytime," Conway says.
The program allows students to qualify for up to six credits from the culinary program at Ivy Tech Community College, a certificate of achievement from the state of Indiana and ServSafe certification for food handlers, recognized by the Indiana Health Department and required by Indiana law. They earn an average starting salary of $9.25 an hour in an industry predicted by the Department of Labor to grow as much as 17 percent by 2014. Students participate in classes taught by guest chef instructors from Indianapolis' top restaurant and food organizations. This allows them to not only gain insight into industry expertise, but also to cultivate networking and mentoring opportunities.
Outside of the kitchen, they are assisted every step of the way by case managers, job counselors and after-training support. They receive counseling in self-esteem and confidence. Students learn how to be financially literate, to manage conflict and be effective communicators. They learn to dress for success, how to construct resumes, search for jobs and ace interviews. They learn to set goals and standards for themselves.
All of this, for free.
A full circle
Unlike other job training centers, Second Helpings' culinary program is about producing the best students possible. "Second Helpings is known for the quality of their graduates," Conway says, which is why he encourages students to think big. "Our philosophy is figure out where you want to go work and then go there and apply. If you're good, they'll make room for you."
Conway believes in thinking big and being aggressive in following your dreams. "My philosophy has always been if I can get a foot in the door then I'll get the job I want," he says.
Graduates have found work ranging from cooking for the Colts to providing food for St. Vincent's; your favorite restaurant may employ a graduate of the Second Helpings program.
The culmination of the program is tested in week eight when students have line day. During this simulation, the dining room of Second Helpings is converted into a restaurant. Volunteers act as waitresses and guests can order a three-course meal. The students then must prepare the meals cooked to order. Line day allows students to understand the pressures, timing and stress of a restaurant worker, not to mention the importance of working cohesively with others.
They also learn how to make the most of what's available. "They look at the food we have and prepare the menu based on that, so they learn creativity with food and thinking on their feet, so not only cooking skills, but critical thinking skills as well," Spitznogle says.
Through this program, the students as well as the many volunteers get to see what community is all about. "The community is helpful in a lot of ways; it's good for the students to see that people will come together and help support their education and it sets up mentors and role models," Spitznogle says.
Second Helpings is igniting individual and corporate interest. In 2007-2008, $252,377 was brought in from individual contributors and Kroger is one of Second Helpings' biggest food donors.
The relationship with Kroger began as a partnership between Indianapolis Women, Kroger and Second Helpings in May 2008 when Kroger was about to begin a Perishable Foods Program in their Central Division and "their leadership believed that the fit between Second Helpings and Kroger was natural," says Second Helpings CEO Cindy Hubert. "Second Helpings has the unique distinction of being the only food rescue organization within the region to be certified by Kroger to be a part of their Perishable Foods Program and receive food," she says.
Fifteen Kroger stores in the greater Indianapolis area participate in the program. "Kroger and their associates are an extraordinary community resource and Second Helpings is honored to partner with them to eliminate hunger in our city," Hubert adds.
Relationships fostered with people, organizations and businesses are something Second Helpings strives for. Students understand the power of community working with Conway and prestigious restaurant chefs around Indianapolis. Volunteers understand the power of community by seeing the tremendous amounts of food delivered to those in need. Businesses can feel better knowing their excess food will not be wasted. And the community thrives by helping to eliminate hunger and waste, and placing talented and skilled workers into jobs.
"There is no place I've ever been to like Second Helpings, you can feel it when you're here," Conway says. "Everything is much greater than the sum of its parts, nothing works by itself. It's not just four walls, it's the community; there is no other place that operates like this."
Veronica puts on a hat
The first thing I noticed when I walked into Second Helpings was the smiles. Everyone seems happy to be there -- whether employee, volunteer or student. So naturally, I smiled too.
I was welcomed by Ben Shine, the manger of communications and development. I learned what an impact Second Helpings has on the Indianapolis area, rescuing 11 million pounds of food to date and transforming that into 4.5 million meals or more. Shine leant me a hat for my duties as a volunteer working with the students in the culinary job training program.
The day I was volunteering was Line Day, which transformed the Second Helpings dining room into a functioning restaurant in order to test students' knowledge in a real life scenario. Students came up with four starters, 13 entrees and three desserts. A duck breast quesadilla with brie starter, a Creole grilled fish entrée and a vegan mixed fruit crumble dessert were all on offer.
Three-course meals were cooked to order by the students, testing their skills in proficiency and teamwork. Students also learned how to manage multiple orders, patience and keeping cool under pressure as 50 people were usually ordering at once. We volunteers took and placed orders, served and bussed, while Director of Operations Nora Spitznogle shouted orders to students, her sister Beth directed our "wait staff" and Chef Carl Conway oversaw food production. We ran like a well-oiled machine while the customers did their part by relaxing and enjoying the food.
If you would like to volunteer at Second Helpings, you can get started by going to their Web site: www.secondhelpings.org.
Harvest at Home
Harvest at Home, the biggest culinary event in Indianapolis, is back for its sixth year Saturday, Aug. 29. Top chefs and creative innovators invite you to share in the celebration of food, fun and philanthropy.
For the first time ever, Harvest at Home will be moving to Second Helpings in order to connect guests with the event's beneficiary organization.
"Moving the event down to Second Helpings will bring people to where the work is being done. That's important," says Chef Regina Mehallick, owner of R Bistro.
It also gives guests and chefs a chance to explore the kitchen and facility they have heard so much about. Also included will be a large silent auction to benefit Second Helpings.
Harvest at Home will display the talents of some of Indy's culinary treasures, including R Bistro, The Best Chocolate in Town, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Pearl Bistro, Yats, Santorini and Ivy Tech Culinary Arts Program.
Two of the restaurants being featured, BARcelona Tapas and El Sol de Tala, currently employ Second Helpings culinary job training program graduates in culinary positions. Harvest at Home will give them a chance to show off their talents while showcasing Second Helpings' mission of empowering people.
Because of the current state of the economy, Second Helpings CEO Cindy Hubert thought it important to provide a more direct way for Harvest guests to see what Second Helpings is all about. "This is a real opportunity to remove the barrier that often exists between gala events and the organizations who benefit from the events," Hubert says. "We want to show Harvest-goers how Second Helpings sends out approximately 2,900 meals a day, while helping unemployed and underemployed people work for a new shot at life. Bringing Harvest home gives our guests a real chance to experience our work first hand, and become a part of making a real difference in our community."
Last year, over 600 people enjoyed bountiful and creative creations and empowered a great cause through Harvest at Home.
Factoids to chew on
* According to the USDA, 27 percent of food produced in a year is thrown away.
* There are 1.5 tons of wasted food per year for every man, woman and child in the United States. That's 263,013,699 pounds of food a day.
* 37 million Americans are struggling with hunger.
* Since its inauguration in 1998, Second Helpings has collected 11 million pounds of food, provided nearly 4.5 million meals and graduated more than 350 adults from their Culinary Job Training Program.
* In 2007-2008, $252,377 was brought in from individual contributors.
* Second Helpings is the only food rescue organization within the region to be certified by Kroger to be a part of their Perishable Foods Program and receive food.
* 15 Kroger stores within the greater Indianapolis area donate to Second Helpings.
* 575,000+ meals are prepared a year.
* 55 social service agencies within Indianapolis receive meals from Second Helpings.