Fighting hunger in Southwest Texas: State jail offenders complete culinary training program at San Antonio Food Bank

Hunger is a serious issue in Texas. Thousands of underprivileged children and homeless persons throughout the state get up hungry, go to bed hungry, and never know anything else in between.

However, the San Antonio Food Bank (SAFB), partnering with Windham School District (WSD) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), is doing its part to fight hunger in Southwest Texas. These entities have united efforts to build a bridge of hope, inspiration and rehabilitation in the community. This bridge is called the Culinary Training Program, and its home is the food bank.

Offenders with awards/jacket.

A ceremony to honor recent offender and community participants graduating from the program took place on location at SAFB headquarters in San Antonio. The class totaled 13 graduates — six free-world students and seven TDCJ offenders.

"This was such an incredible journey. Being able to participate in a worthwhile program that serves the communities by helping to alleviate the basic need of hunger has truly changed me. It feels amazing to be part of something like this," said offender M. Medrano, who graduated with top honors from the class and was presented with a chef's black jacket (a top culinary honor). "I want to thank everyone responsible for this program and for making it possible for us to get an education while helping others at the same time," he said.

Eric Cooper, CEO and president of the SAFB, remarked positively on the graduates' achievements.

"You are all amazing individuals who have taken the opportunity to serve the community, he said. "You have put food on the table for 58,000 people each week. Today is your day of recognition. Congratulations: you are now embarking on a more optimistic path empowered with skills that will help you tremendously in our new world."

This class was the second of its kind, with a third class underway.

Apart from Cooper, additional food industry professionals spoke to the group, including Gary Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard; Steve Champion, director of Cisco brands and produce; John Loughery, director of meat, seafood, and poultry at Cisco; Rick Groomers and staff from Groomers Seafood; A. Bump, Culinary Training Program coordinator and Michael Guerra from SAFB. David Kuccio from KSAT made an appearance as well.

Also in attendance were members of WSD faculty and TDCJ staff, which included WSD Principal T. Craiker and Warden Miguel Martinez, both of the Dominguez State Jail.

The Culinary Training Program is a unique opportunity for offenders to learn about the finer side of the food industry, while contributing to the greater cause of fighting hunger, Bump said.

"The program is really great for offenders because they get hands-on practical experience in a real-life food preparation setting. This assists them in obtaining future jobs in the food industry."

In order to participate in the Culinary Training Program, offenders must be WSD students at Dominguez State Jail, holding a J1 trustee custody status with a spotless disciplinary record. Once approved for the program, they are transported Monday through Friday under TDCJ staff supervision to SAFB with two officers providing security.

Lessons are taught by SAFB instructors and guest chefs from the San Antonio area. Each class session takes place for approximately five hours each day. Usually one and one-half hours are spent in the classroom, and three and one-half hours are spent in the kitchen cooking.

Members of WSD faculty, TDCJ staff and Food Bank representatives.

The Culinary Training Program is an intensive 18-week suite of multi-layered learning. Training takes place at SAFB Community Kitchen, and offenders learn all the basic skills that apply to most food production, such as kitchen safety and sanitation, standard recipe use, meat, vegetable, fruit and pasta cookery, and menu development. Offenders prepare school meals and after-school meals for children in the San Antonio area, as well as meals distributed to Boys and Girls Clubs, local churches and civic organizations. The number of serving locations extends to 12 sites, which doubles during the summertime. These meals are part of the assistance to 58,000 people each week.

"Students get to serve communities through the Culinary Training Program. They feel like they are contributing to a worthwhile cause that gives back to the community," WSD Principal T. Craiker said.

Upon graduation, students earn a ServSafe culinary certificate from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF). This certification includes an eight- hour exam, which all food handlers must possess in order to pursue a career in the food industry.

Working in a kitchen is no easy task, Cooper said, explaining physical requirements accompanying the learning of cooking skills.

"A kitchen is a highly physical atmosphere, requiring lithe, agile movement in often very close quarters. Lifting heavy items such as pots and kettles and working in close proximity to hot ovens and ranges are necessary conditions for the aspiring chef," he said.

Instructors also help students develop communication skills and resume development, while showing them positive avenues of networking with potential employers, Principal Craiker said.

"The culinary skills gained in this program help our students advance in the industry, and they also leave the program with high self-esteem and a training edge over competitors," she said.

It is no mere boast that culinary arts skills are transferable in today's modern society. Bump recalls a former offender applying for a job at a restaurant when he was released from TDCJ.

"During his job interview he showed them his ServSafe food handler certification earned through the WSD program and was hired on the spot. This epitomizes the goal of the Culinary Training Program," she said.

Officials say the most lasting and rewarding part of the program is being endowed with the gift of giving. Cooper told the graduates: "You have dedicated a portion of your life serving with us side-by-side in the kitchen, helping and making a difference for families in need of a decent meal, and for that we thank you."


Editor's Note:

In a related TDCJ program, offenders from the Torres Unit are also receiving culinary training from the SAFB. They are transported from their unit to the SAFB daily and participate in the same program as the WSD students. They also receive certificates and certifications upon completion of the program. This article is shared courtesy of The ECHO, TDCJ's newspaper by and for offenders.