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‘Breath of fresh air’ in North Philly: More job training, meals for hungry as Philabundance expands

The nonprofit will be able to train twice as many students and prepare four times as many meals in the new facility it is building in North Philadelphia.

At Philabundance Community Kitchen, chef Hugo Campos, right, shows culinary student Charles Jones  the correct procedure for placing cranberries on small cheesecake cupcakes on May 1.
At Philabundance Community Kitchen, chef Hugo Campos, right, shows culinary student Charles Jones the correct procedure for placing cranberries on small cheesecake cupcakes on May 1.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Niya Gist suffered a “hurtful” setback last summer when the culinary school she attended closed abruptly.

But now, the 25-year-old North Philadelphia resident is back on track, thanks to Philabundance Community Kitchen’s food-service training program for low- or no-income individuals with little or no formal work experience — a huge problem in Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate among the largest U.S. cities.

“This is a breath of fresh air,” said Gist, who spent a recent morning prepping lettuce for sliders, chopping chicken for salad, and slicing green peppers in a city shelter for homeless women and children. “I’m loving it.”

Gist is part of a class of 17 in a 14-week program that goes beyond culinary skills to teach “life skills” to help participants succeed in the workplace after graduation. The Community Kitchen, on North Woodstock Street, has graduated 800 since its founding in 2000, at no cost to the participants, and has outgrown its current quarters.

Relief is on the way.

On Monday, Philabundance, which calls itself the region’s largest hunger-relief organization, plans to break ground on a new facility at 2224 N. 10th St., where its Community Kitchen will be able to double the number of students trained annually to as many as 200, and quadruple to two million the number of meals it prepares for shelters, other human services organizations, and its own catering business.

Hugo Campos, the chef for the catering operation called PCKatering, said he looks forward to expanding the operation in the new facility next year. “We’re going to try to get into weddings, bigger events,” said Campos, who hires students and graduates to prepare for and staff events.

Philabundance has raised $11 million for construction, including a $4 million grant from the city and $2 million from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The rest of the money came from individuals, corporations, and foundations. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation gave $1 million, the largest private donation.

The nonprofit aims to raise an additional $1 million to outfit the new center and to pay for the cost of the first few classes there. The cost per student is $7,200. This year’s PCKatering profits are expected to put four students through the training.

Carniesha Kwashie, director of the Job Opportunity Investment Network at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, said it’s a good sign that Philabundance Community Kitchen has been in operation since 2000. Keys to successful workforce development are “being able to meet people where they are, the targeted population, and to work with employers to make sure your programming is actually meeting their needs,” Kwashie said.

Chickie’s & Pete’s, the Philadelphia crab house and sports-bar chain, started working with Philabundance Community Kitchen in December. “They have a product that we need. They have human capital. We need human capital,” said Niki Bounds, who heads the restaurant company’s human resources department.

So far, Chickie’s & Pete’s has had 10 interns from the program and hired seven of them.

Bounds described Chickie’s & Pete’s as a “second-chance organization,” which means, “We will absolutely hire individuals with offenses.”

That fits well with the Philabundance program, where an estimated 60 percent to 75 percent of students have a criminal background, said Candace Matthews-Bass, the organization’s deputy director for workforce and community development.

That’s the story of Troy Bard, 49, who found his way to the program in 2010 after completing a 10-year term in federal prison, and finding himself frustrated with a $7.25-an-hour job at a furniture warehouse on Kensington Avenue while living in a halfway house.

Immediately after graduating from Community Kitchen, Bard, who lives in West Philadelphia, landed a job at the Inn at Penn and has been there ever since, working his way up from $12 an hour as a prep cook to his current position running the breakfast shift and making $21 an hour.

“That goes way better than the $7.25 that I was making," Bard said.

Bard described the Philabundance training as life-changing. “At that time, I was 40 years old," he said. "Life had to be different at that point. You can’t be doing crazy things.”