August 19, 2013

Taco Tuesday – FRESH Food and Lund.

Posted in Employees, Independence Place, Lund Early Childhood Program (LECP), Reach Up, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Workforce Development Program tagged , , , , , at 4:33 pm by Lund

Beef tacos are on the lunch menu, but there is something special about these tacos. “They’ve got vegetables in them, sweet potato, carrot and kale.  The kids don’t even know and they say it’s better than Taco Bell,” says Amanda Morton who is scooping quarter cups of the filling into the taco shells.  Amanda is a trainee with FRESH Food, a program of Vermont Works for Women that prepares wholesome, as local as possible meals to be delivered to childcare centers in the Burlington and Winooski areas.  The program fills two needs – nutritious meals for childcare centers that lack the facilities to prepare their own food and work experience opportunities for women to learn the skills and techniques of working in a commercial kitchen.

The kitchen at Winooski High School where the meals are being prepared over the summer is quiet and calm on taco Tuesday.  Everyone is working diligently and there is an air of confidence and capability.  “It’s a well oiled machine,” says Robin, one of the two chef instructors.  Amanda is nearing the end of the 13-week program and has done extremely well.  “She’s a jewel and we’ve loved having her here,” says Robin.  Her sentiments are echoed by Melissa Corbin, Director of Social Enterprises at Vermont Works for Women.  “She’s the model of a perfect employee,” she says, “with a real head for numbers and keeping the details.  She’s only the second trainee since the beginning of the program who we’ve been able to let keep track of the meal receipts.  A lot is at stake, if there is one mistake we don’t get paid for the entire meal.”  The funding for the FRESH Food program is a complex balance between parents at the childcare centers, the USDA and Vermont Works for Women.  It is made even more complex by the fact that Vermont Works for Women happily takes on a funding gap by choosing to use local food wherever they can.

Amanda at work preparing tacos.

Amanda at work preparing tacos.

Amanda had been living at Lund’s residential treatment facility on Glen Road and just the day before we met moved into Lund’s transitional housing program, Independence Place, with her one year old daughter, Leah.  “I came to Lund to have a safe place to live with my daughter.  Ann, she’s a case manager at Lund, she saved my life.”  It was Ann who connected Amanda to the FRESH Food program when a representative came to Lund for an informational session.  Amanda had been working in the kitchen at Glen Road with Dinah Larsen, Food Services Specialist.

“She started out with two 30 minutes sessions a week but soon was coming several hours a day.  She didn’t work on special projects, she helped me with the day to day operations and it was great.  It probably helped that she was eating the food that she prepared.”  Dinah is quick to mention that this work experience is about much more than the actual work that is being done.  It is about the responsibility of having a job. “Amanda came, put her head down and did what she needed to do.   She knew that she could achieve something by following through with the process.  One day she told me twenty minutes before work that she didn’t feel like coming and I was mad.  I told her so.  She didn’t do it again.   She knew that this was a stepping stone and that it would pay off.  She took that and ran with it.”  Dinah speaks of Amanda fondly and admits that she cried when her workforce placement finished.  “After her first day at Vermont Works for Women, she came back and I asked her how it went.  She said, ‘It’s terrible; everything you told me was useful.’  It was so funny, I teased her about how I was right all along.”

This work placement happened through Lund’s Workforce Development Program which allows clients to engage in on the job training with a Lund employee in a specific position. They receive a small stipend and gain experience which can bolster their resume and provide a recent job reference.   These same benefits apply to the FRESH Food program and participation in these programs does not affect Reach Up Benefits and so Amanda can actively work towards self-sufficiency without losing the essential financial support that she needs.

Amanda is looking for a job for when her time with FRESH Food comes to an end. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go into food service but she enjoys being in the kitchen and wants a job that fits around her daughter’s daycare schedule.  Leah attends Lund’s Early Childhood Program at 50 Joy Drive and Melissa has a lead on a job nearby.  “I’ll send an e-mail,” says Melissa, eager to help Amanda find a job.  FRESH Food’s job placement success rate is 79%.   She knows Amanda well and greeted her with obvious affection when we arrive at her office.  “It’s like a family here, don’t you think?”  Melissa asks.  “Yeah it’s really nice in the kitchen,” Amanda replies.  “We’re a good team.  I can ask for the cup thingy and it’s in my hand before I finish my sentence.  They know what I mean.”

There is also time in the day for the trainees to learn recipes and cooking techniques.  “I wanted to learn how to make pasta from scratch and so we did that one day.  And we’ve learned to bake bread.”  It’s been educational and practical as Amanda can take some of the skills that she has learned and cook nutritious food for Leah.  “We made bowtie pastas and Leah ate them.  But her favorite is lo-mein.”  “And now you can make that yourself,” interjects Melissa.   Amanda has also had the opportunity to take a CPR course and to study for and sit the Safe Serve examination that will lend strength to her resume if she does decide to go into food service.

While representing a complex interaction of private enterprises, various non-profits and government funding, this program also meets basic needs.  Kids need to eat good, healthy food and young women need jobs where they are supported in removing barriers to self sufficiency.  It just makes sense.  “It’s down to authentic support,” says Melissa. “Support that can lead to economic independence.”

Back in the lunch room at the school, the kids are enjoying the tacos and heading in to the kitchen to ask for more.  “Wait for your carrots,” says one of the counselors to a little girl.  “I love carrots,” she replies. “I didn’t know there were carrots.  I’m too short to see over the counter.” For short and tall, kids and trainees, the FRESH Food program is fitting the bill.

Happy lunch enthusiast.

Happy lunch enthusiast.

**NEWSFLASH** Since the writing of this blog post, Amanda has accepted a full time job in food services and has passed her Safe Serve examination Everyone here at Lund and at Vermont Works for Women is so happy for her.

1 Comment »

  1. Kelly G. said,

    Such a great story – excellent to hear about a program that benefits so many people in our community. Nice work everyone!


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