Kitchen work is so labor-intensive most of us avoid it. So the idea of taking in people who haven’t worked for years – the poor, the homeless, recent graduates of the state prison system – and teaching them the ways of professional chefs is something only a pretty quirky food bank would do.
“Basically it’s a 2-year education in culinary arts in 12 weeks, 8:30 to 5:30, Monday to Friday,” said Channels executive chef Michael Demarco. “Three months of schooling is very difficult for some of them. A lot of the students haven’t been in school in 20 years. They’re in their 40s so they haven’t used their basic adding, subtracting or reading. It’s a challenge to get them up to speed again on just the simplest things.”
Challenge is what this organization does well. Channels Food Rescue has been on the road less traveled for 20 years, serving just four counties with an intensity that sparkles beside the dull public image of food banks.
“A lot of times when you think of hunger relief you think of canned goods or things that are prepackaged,” said Channels’ new executive director Frances Seeger. “You don’t think of giving people produce and helping them learn about nutritional value.”
While the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank handles 28 counties and the bulk of prepared product distribution, Channels concentrates on the Harrisburg metro area and the hard work of food rescue. Jean Beatty of New Cumberland founded the non-profit to go into hotel and institutional kitchens and pick up leftovers, then deliver them to soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
Beatty retired at the end of 2008, leaving a legacy of programs beyond food rescue.
n Plant a Row for the Hungry garnered 1,418 pounds of fresh produce from local gardeners over the growing season last year, and delivered it to more than 60 shelters and soup kitchens in Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry and York counties.
n Kids Café feeds 600 poor children daily after school, and during the summer it offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
n Food for the Future is a new partnership with Harrisburg School District, in which Channels is developing the curriculum, writing lesson plans and promoting the fundamentals of knife skills, kitchen safety and recipe development.
And, as Chef Beth Jackson says, Food for the Future means at least one good meal a day for the culinary students. She runs the kitchen classes at Harrisburg Career and Technology Academy. “When I came here there was no kitchen, it was just an empty room,” she said. “I had two little stoves in the back that they called culinary arts.”
Now she teaches two classes and runs a small café at the William Penn campus of Harrisburg High.
The kids work in groups, all making part of the same dish. “That way, they’re not all doing the same thing and I don’t have 18 kids saying ‘Chef …Chef … Chef … Chef…’ And we can compare, too. What’s the difference, what tastes better?”
She just hit her one-year mark at Career & Tech, and likes the intensity. “It’s definitely different, teaching. I’m getting it. I’m a chef, but this is very challenging. I’m going to Penn State at the same time to get my teaching degree.”