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June 22, 2018
Turning the tables: Training the homeless for culinary careers

Photo: James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times

Cliff Barsi, left, hads food service and social enterprise for Metropolitan Ministries' Inside the Box.

Dining in Florida

Turning the tables: Training the homeless for culinary careers

Chris Sherman | 9/28/2016

Inside the Box is an updated example of a classic breakfast and lunch concession on the first floor of an office building in downtown Tampa. The eatery features lime green furniture, a Coke machine with a thousand flavors and a thoroughly modern menu: Couscous salad, roast beef with Boursin cheese, grilled vegetables on ciabatta, asparagus with new potatoes, tuna melt with avocado, antipasta and artichoke salad and a supremely chunky chili.

Rhonda Hernandez and Andrew Norris work the counter, hollering customer names while Angelic Whorrall takes orders on a computer tablet if the line gets a little long.

Since it opened, Inside the Box has offered its own twists on Cuban sandwiches (with black bean hummus) and mojo pork on to stones (for the gluten-free crowd), while a website touts weekly specials like chicken linguine with pine nuts and fresh basil. An offshoot, Beyond Inside the Box, delivers, caters and has a sister location downtown. It stocks gourmet grab-and-go meals at the Tampa airport and packages a line of cupcakes, cookies and cheesecakes.

The operation has a higher purpose than profitability: Employees and all the food come from the culinary arts training, kitchens and transitional housing at Metropolitan Ministries, Tampa’s main program for the homeless. “Good Food Doing Good” raises funds to feed and house the needy; more important, its 12-week intensive training gives hundreds of clients a chance to learn new jobs and establish new lives.

Bridget Ortiz, who sold Inside the Box sandwiches and snacks to swimmers at a Tampa YMCA, shakes her head and smiles. “I had a difficult … everything.” Then she sparkles: “Yesterday I sold out!” And she talks about upcoming job interviews.

Inside the Box is among numerous efforts around Florida to turn the tables on traditional soup kitchens and food pantries, using food preparation to build skills for jobs in both the front and back of the house in the food service industry. “This shows our mission is to create self-sustaining lives,” says Cliff Barsi, who heads food service and social enterprise for Metropolitan Ministries’ Inside the Box. Greg Higgerson, of Second Harvest in Orlando, says, “We’ve been trying to feed the people in the line; now we’re trying to shorten the line.”

Some programs hook up with chefs and other food pros to teach knife skills, food safety, cost management and customer service. At Metropolitan, Barsi and chefs Luis Soto and Eric Champagne all have decades of culinary experience.

The programs also build confidence, work ethic and life management skills. “A lot of our people, when they come in, have had their spirits sort of crushed,” says Higgerson. After training, however, graduates join the commercial work force. Metropolitan Ministries cooks all have had in-service internships at restaurants like Mise en Place and Ulele in Tampa.

After students at Orlando’s Second Harvest complete 14 weeks in class, filling big commercial orders for Head Start and other agencies, the grads are quickly placed throughout the resort and hotel industry. All 130 graduates so far have been placed in full-time jobs, and more than 70% remained in their jobs for at least a year.

In Miami, some clients who found shelter at Camillus House have gotten culinary training through the ministries of Greater Bethel AME Church. Classes at Love Thy Neighbor in Broward lead to the culinary program at McFatter Technical College in Davie.

In St. Augustine, residents of St. Francis House have a monthlong training program that leads some to First Coast Technical College’s culinary arts program and produces lunches for St. Francis House with the aid of chefs from the American Culinary Federation.

The Clara White Mission in Jacksonville, which opened one of Florida’s first soup kitchens a century ago for veterans, now has a culinary arts program and kitchen that serves 400 or more breakfasts daily, serves weekly white-tablecloth lunches at Clara’s at the Cathedral (St. John’s) and caters business lunches and weddings with the likes of flounder étouffée and mini beef wellingtons. Now it has started White Harvest Farms and a “farm-to-faith” market.

Along with the charities, churches and government agencies, the restaurant and food service industry has played a key role. Bob Basham, an Outback pioneer, has been a strong supporter of Metropolitan Ministries, providing the first location for Inside the Box and helping to outfit its massive commercial kitchen. In Orlando, Darden Restaurants created a 2,000-sq.-ft. kitchen for Second Harvest. Sysco Foods, the distributor, has provided land and money for Clara White’s farm.

In addition, hundreds of restaurateurs and school and hospital kitchens will hire the once hungry and homeless to be on the other side of the line as kitchen crew, servers, line cooks and, with luck and persistence, maybe managers and chefs.

Tags: Restaurants

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