Something's Cooking at Food Bank Kitchen

By Giving Hope ArizonaJune 22, 2016

The annual conference of Arizona Food Banks takes place in Scottsdale on May 20, and that provides the opportunity to shine a light on the critical needs these food banks fill. According to AAFB Field Operations Director April Bradham, this event provides a yearly opportunity for food bank staffers and related organizations to discuss food insecurity in Arizona and brainstorm how to respond to the demand. There’s no doubt demand is high. 

Despite the never-ending efforts of the five statewide food banks that collectively serve all 15 Arizona counties (two in Phoenix, and one each in Mesa, Yuma and Tucson), need continues to grow. 

The latest available figures show almost one in five Arizonans — approximately 1.2 million people — struggle with food insecurity. Arizona’s battle with having enough food to eat exceeds national averages in the ability to access or pay for enough food to feed a household. Broken down further, one in three children and one in seven senior citizens face a daily question of where their next meal is going to come from. Not only do these hard-working food bank entities publicly raise funds and collect food to distribute, they quietly provide nutrients and nurturing through a multitude of other food-related programs like one that trains new chefs that provide hot, freshly-cooked meals and/or sack lunches through community kitchens. 

The relatively new community kitchen catering concept is just one creative solution to feeding and funding, generating additional badly-needed revenue to help further the cause. It utilizes trainees to cook the donated or purchased supplies for the good of all, a perfect example of the adage that, there is strength in unity. It’s a lesson that other nonprofits might wish to consider — working together by combining separate efforts to benefit the collective good. 

“We serve thousands of monthly meals,” says Jon Wirtis, Executive Chef of Caridad Community Kitchen in Tucson, part of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s mission of changing lives “by feeding the hungry today and building a hunger-free tomorrow.” 

In Southern Arizona, the Caridad (Caring) Kitchen accounts for one third of the region’s monthly meals “and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg because there’s a greater need out there than we’re currently aware of,” says Wirtis, who deals daily with two lines of hunger --- the line you want to feed and the line of unemployed whose numbers you want to shorten by finding them a job through their 10-week-long Culinary Training Program. 

“They learn the art of food preparation,” he says, noting that more than 100 graduates can already point to an 85 percent placement rate with local restaurant kitchens. 

Menus are made up daily because 80 percent of the kitchen’s food stock is donated. “We’re like the TV show Chopped because we get mystery baskets of food every day. I’ll stockpile them until I get enough to fill several hundred plates because nothing goes to waste here.” 

The same holds true at a similar kitchen program in Phoenix at St. Mary’s Food Bank. As one of the world’s first food banks (founded in 1967), St. Mary’s is where citizens and companies with funds or food can “deposit” it and those in need can “withdraw” it. 

“We’ve been at it for 12 years now,” says Jon Gullick, senior kitchen operations manager, “and, to date, have between 500-600 chefs that have graduated our 16-week program. We have a lot going on. We prepare 1,000 hot meals and some 5,000 cold meals per day as well as meals for our homeless outreach program and contracted meals through our CK Catering operation, which creates a source of funding for us and provides a great opportunity to teach students new skills. 

“It’s a disgrace in this day and age that a large number of children have to go without something to eat. Hunger may be worldwide, but it’s also prevalent right here in our own backyard,” Gullick said. 

His culinary students impact thousands of lives even as they learn job skills to take them off government assistance. 

“It’s measured by more than just the number of students we help directly. It’s like throwing a rock in the pond and watching the ripple effect,” Gullick said. “When one of our students graduates and goes into the community as a taxpayer themselves, we all benefit. What we do here is throw rocks of opportunity into the pool of life. The impact is immeasurable.” 

Asked what would happen if the St. Mary’s Community Kitchen would ever have to close its doors, his response was immediate and succinct. “We’d have 6,000 or 7,000 kids going hungry every day and if they had to worry about being hungry, they couldn’t focus on being a kid --- and we’d be robbing them of that.” 

Both community kitchen programs maintain a catering operation to generate additional funds to pay for the thousands of meals they prepare each day. “We pvide food for weddings and special functions and probably make up 200-300 catered box lunches a week for corporations,” says Gullick. 

His Tucson counterpart, Caridad Catering --- Food for the Social Good, has the same mission. “We help fund our overall program through catering contracts that allow us to hire our own program graduates,” Wirtis said.