For Trainees, Community Servings Teaching Kitchen Provides More Than Just Cooking Skills

The Teaching Kitchen at Community Servings is back in full swing, with a number of changes from previous years to benefit the program participants.

Community Servings, a JP-based nonprofit that provides medically tailored meals to people with chronic and critical illnesses, offers several programs to help members of the community, including the Teaching Kitchen program.

Jermaine McNeill chops some rosemary. McNeill graduated from the Teaching Kitchen program in 2011, and is now a full time chef at Community Servings.

The Gazette sat down with Teaching Kitchen Program Manager Allison Sequeira to learn about the program and what it offers.

The Teaching Kitchen program is a “free 12-week hands-on food service job-training program for individuals facing barriers to full-time employment,” according to a press release from Community Servings.

 Sequeira said that Community Servings has a “history of employing a lot of people looking for a second, third, or 18th chance,” and the team looks for people who are “super committed” and “thankful for an opportunity to work hard.”

A goal of the program is to have participants become gainfully hired in the food service industry. Though not every graduate can be hired full time by Community Servings, “at this point, about half our permanent kitchen staff are graduates of the program,” Sequeira said.

The 47th Teaching Kitchen class commenced their experience last week, and they will learn kitchen basics such as knife skills, reading recipes, measuring ingredients, and how to generally move about a commercial kitchen.

Participants will also learn different cooking techniques for various kinds of proteins, as well as how to prepare bakery items, she said.

 “The culinary piece is the biggest piece of the program,” Sequeira said, but participants are also taught about nutrition from Community Servings’ onsite nutrition team, as well as financial empowerment classes in partnership with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC).

Participants receive “one on one financial coaching,” along with education in digital literacy. People learn how to work with computers as well as participate in mock interviews and receive assistance with resume writing. They also practice talking about the industry so they are “ready to see themselves as permanent employed individuals,” Sequeira said.

“Most days, they’re in the kitchen,” she said of the employees. They also get a lunch break where lunch is served and folks can chat with one another.

Three mornings a week, the trainees work with the full time chefs and learn about the different aspects of creating the 3,000 medically-tailored, from-scratch meals that are prepared daily on site.

“It’s a really cool thing to put on their resumes,” she said. Participants also receive ServSafe certification as part of the program, she added.

“This is an overwhelming time commitment for many of them,” Sequeira said, and the program is now split into two different phases to mark a sense of accomplishment for trainees. The second phase has a slight increase in hours from the first.

As a new benefit to the program, eligible trainees will be able to receive a wage for all hours worked through Community Servings payroll, “thanks in part to generous support from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Community-based Health Initiative funds, which were recently awarded to the agency as part of a three-year, $500,000 Focused Investment Grant aimed at addressing job and financial security in the community,” according to the press release.

 “Our goal there was to increase access and retention,” Sequeira said, as many people cannot afford to leave their minimum wage jobs to participate in this program.

Aside from eventual employment, Sequeira said that “I hope that people gain self-confidence and a sense of hope…” as well as “gain a community that they feel supported by. Those are more significant than even the job.”

The program is now accepting new participants on a rolling basis, and the next set of classes start on September 13.

Additionally, Community Servings is always looking for more partners and social service agencies to work with, Sequeira said.

“If someone wants to come talk to us and talk about a referral partnership, we’re all ears,” Sequeira said.

The Teaching Kitchen has been a huge help and a positive experience for many of its participants, including Jermaine McNeill.

 “The program, it did wonders for me,” McNeill said. “It helped me out tremendously.”

He said when he participated in the program, he had just earned his GED and had become a new dad.

“I was going through a lot,” he said, adding that he is “grateful for the program and the lessons and the things that it taught me.

McNeill said that he got a call from Community Servings about a year ago to come back and work in the kitchen, right after he had gotten laid off from his previous job as a food service director.

He said he was “figuring out what my next move was going to be,” but the offer was a “blessing; it was at a good time.” He started out as a temporary employee, but was asked to stay long-term.

Every day from 7-3, McNeill comes in, looks at the day’s menu, and gets to work making two or three recipes. He said he prefers to work on his own, as he likes to have three freedom to learn from his own mistakes.

He also said he enjoys conversing with the Teaching Kitchen class and taking them under his wing, giving them advice and being a shoulder for them to lean on.

McNeill said he knows what it’s like to be a new person in a situation, so he tries to make the trainees as comfortable as possible and “make myself available” to them.

“I always wanted to work in food,” he said. “I didn’t take it serious until I got older. I realized I could be good at it.” He worked as a dishwasher when he was younger, and moved his way up the ladder, always looking for ways to learn new things.

“It’s been a long journey to this point,” McNeill said. “I’m grateful and blessed.”

For more information on Community Servings and the Teaching Kitchen, visit servings.org.

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