Driving hunger from communities

Driving hunger from communities

At Philabundance, a network of food bank programs creates a dynamic social safety net

Behind the swinging doors to a good-sized dining room, and down the hall from a set of classrooms, eight students in crisp white chef coats are making lunch for about 90 customers.

Overseeing their efforts is chef Hugo Campos, a jovial man in his mid-30s who moves from one student to the next, instructing, explaining, and answering questions. The holidays are coming up, and I'm here to meet some of the students, and to teach them how to make pie dough.

Philabundance fights hunger with a collection of programs and initiatives that address the problem from many innovative angles.

They're in the eighth week of the 14-week-long career-targeted Community Kitchen certificate program. Students come to the program from many places — halfway houses, community training services, and prison release programs, to name a few. It's run by Philabundance, one of the most robust food banks in the country. Based in Philadelphia, and a member of Feeding America, Philabundance fights hunger with a collection of programs and initiatives that address the problem from many innovative angles.

There's a gleaning program, which takes advantage of the city's proximity to Pennsylvania and New Jersey farms throughout the Delaware Valley. From June through October, volunteers harvest left-behind produce from the fields, both preventing crops from going to waste and helping fresh local food reach families in need. In a similar vein, Philabundance created the Grocers Against Hunger program to ensure that FDA guidelines are in place to collect food from local retailers (over 8 million pounds in 2013) that would otherwise have been discarded.

Fresh for All is a weekly volunteer-run farmers' market that distributes fresh produce to anyone who needs it, building community in the process. There's a senior food assistance program, and lunchbox and summer lunch programs for kids. Perhaps their most innovative endeavor of all is a nonprofit grocery store named Fare and Square, located in a neighborhood that had been without a grocery store for more than 12 years.

An artist at heart, Anthony told me he gets a lot of satisfaction from the connections he makes with others through food.

Back in the kitchen, Hugo hands a recipe for pie dough to me and a student, Anthony Bowler. Our task is to make enough dough for 24 pies. Anthony is 31, and sports a mesmerizing collection of tattoos. He's earned his slot in the program: there are at least three applicants for every available training opportunity. He's never made pie dough before, and as we set ourselves up at the prep table, I asked him what brought him to cooking. "I had to make a change. I couldn't keep going the way I was going, and I've always liked to cook," he said. An artist at heart, he told me he gets a lot of satisfaction from the connections he makes with others through food: "It's the same buzz you get when someone reacts to your art. You can affect, even change them, in some way."

As we measure and mix, fellow student Lisa Mills sidles up opposite our workstation, obviously intrigued. She wants in on the secrets of pie, and is thoroughly absorbed by our machinations.

Anthony and Lisa take in how to use the scale, learn the weight of a cup of flour, and my tricks for preparing pie dough for easier rolling. Anthony is conscientious about keeping the workstation clean; he knows it's a trait future employers will expect.

Across the room, Hugo gathers the class for a quick demonstration on braising. "I love seeing these guys take on new skills," he later says. After 12 weeks here, they'll spend two weeks in professional kitchens that are looking to hire. It's a step into a new life for the students who graduate.

From the volunteers to the farms, to the Community Kitchen students transforming that farm produce into meals, to the nutrition coaching in the aisles of Fare and Square, thousands of people are eating better in the Delaware Valley thanks to the work of Philabundance and Feeding America. As Fare and Square manager Mike Basher says, "At the end of the day, we get more families fed, and that's what it's all about."