How A Culinary Arts Program Is Tackling Homelessness And Unemployment

Second Harvest Food Bank is offering a tuition-free program to help prepare those in need for full-time work in culinary arts.

Shaneka Jimerson couldn't catch a break.

A mother of three and an abuse survivor, Jimerson tried to find work through through temp agencies and even got a job as a telemarketer. But the industry was too volatile. When she found out her children also being abused at home by her then-partner, she took the kids and started living in her car. And then, as if things couldn't get worse, an electrical fire set her car ablaze.

"When the fire department came, the lieutenant asked me, 'Hun, where are you guys going to go?'" Jimerson told A Plus. "And I was just like, 'I don't know.'"

After four nights in Red Cross temporary housing, Jimerson had to send her two girls back to their father. She lived in a homeless shelter with her son as she continued to look for work. That's when a case worker from the shelter, a partner of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, offered her the opportunity to join a culinary arts training program.

Second Harvest Food Bank's 14-week program is designed for people who lack housing, food, transportation or have medical and mental health needs. 30 percent of the students in the program are homeless, and there is no cost for tuition. Teaching everything from sanitation to knife skills, the program is designed to prepare its enrollees for full-time work in the real world. 

"The purpose of the culinary program is to help adults like myself who have some type of hardship in life, or make minimum wage, or need correct guidance or a career path to help us sustain better in the world," Jimerson said. "They want to teach us about how to do mock interviews, make resumes and build life skills. And throughout the program, I had to do all of that stuff."



Shaneka Jimerson poses for a photo at Second Harvest Food Bank.
Shaneka Jimerson poses for a photo at Second Harvest Food Bank. Melissa Kear / Second Harvest Food Bank

Dave Krepcho, the president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, explained that the staff recruits people for the culinary training program through the more than 550 partner feeding programs that provide 50 million meals a year to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and emergency food pantries. At its heart, Second Harvest Food Bank is a provider of meals for the needy — but the culinary program was an ambitious project that is reaping huge rewards. 

"These are the folks that are working with literally hundreds of thousands of people a year and they have relationships with them," Krepcho told A Plus. "They know people that are looking for a second chance or a third chance and are serious about turning their lives around."

Dave Krepcho poses with a student in the culinary training program.
Dave Krepcho poses with a student in the culinary training program. Melissa Kear / Second Harvest Food Bank

So far, the program, which boasts a 100 percent job placement rate, has seen 175 students graduate. Funding for the program comes almost entirely from private donors and those who just want to give back. Most graduates will make $12 an hour and sometimes more, depending on the job. During the 14 weeks, classes run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week, and students are provided bus passes and guidance to limit attrition. 

Jimerson, who served in the military and actually specialized as a cook for two years, said that she would have had trouble making it through had the program not been designed so well.

"I have to admit to you I thought I wasn't going to make it because it was like going through school all over again," Jimerson said. "But there was no excuse for me not to be there. They provided so much to make sure I got there, and I had to put in my effort to make sure I showed them this is what I wanted to do." 

About halfway through the program, Jimerson began to hit her stride and excel. When she graduated, instead of placing her in a job elsewhere, the Second Harvest Food Bank offered her a full-time position. Today, she has a lead position in the program's production area and even helps with its catering program, providing kids in the Head Start program free meals. 

"To know that I'm bringing home a paycheck, to pay the bills, to save money, it makes me feel great, it makes me feel proud of myself," Jimerson said. "It's more than just a food bank, it's a mission on its own. I try to make it my daily habit to change someone's life because my life was changed."

When I asked Krepcho if there were any students in his memory who stuck out, Jimerson was the first that came to mind. After retelling her story, he proudly explained how Jimerson hadn't just graduated and gotten a job — she had become a leader at Second Harvest Food Bank.

"Shaneka now is part of a team that is producing 6,000 meals a day for children's programs," Krepcho said. "She has her children back. She has her own apartment and a new car, and she's got one of the biggest smiles in this building. I don't know if it gets any better than that."

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