Graduation Season

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Written by Melissa Pasanen. Originally posted on vermontlife.com.

It’s that graduation time of year, with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance accompanying the ritual of those moving on to the next phase of their lives, from preschoolers to college students and beyond.

A couple of weeks ago, I played a tiny role in this season of milestones when I spoke at a very special graduation of just five students. They were the 13th group to successfully complete the three-month Community Kitchen Academy program, a partnership between the Vermont Foodbank and the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, which educates underemployed and unemployed Vermonters for food service careers.

As an added bonus, while the students learn to julienne and sauté, they are also turning ingredients salvaged from local farms, restaurants, food service companies and retailers into nutritious meals to feed those at risk of hunger. This is made even more impactful by the fact that some CKA participants have been food shelf clients themselves.

I wrote a 2010 feature for Vermont Life on the program and was impressed with the rigorous curriculum — covering critical skills from food safety, to interview techniques, to teamwork — along with the resolve of participants to complete the program despite challenges in their lives. I have since joined their professional advisory board and, in 2012, CKA received Vermont State College accreditation and its graduates can earn nine college-level academic transfer credits, giving them a nice boost into higher education.

Since the Burlington program was launched in 2009, 91 students have graduated, achieving an 87 percent success rate with job placement or going on to further education. In addition, students have prepared more than 116,000 portions of food for people in need. This July, the Foodbank in partnership with Central Vermont Community Action Council will expand to a second site in Barre.

While not all graduates end up working in food service, they all gain practical skills, valuable experience and confidence. As one young, single mom said to me, “Maybe my son will start eating my cooking. He’s into McDonald’s now.”

And that, as I said when I stood before the graduates and their numerous friends, family and other supporters, is really the most important thing they’ll take away with them. As I explained in my speech, over the years I’ve been writing about food, I’ve met a number of famous chefs who’ve cooked for presidents, royalty and movie stars, but ask any chef who he or she most enjoys cooking for and the answer will always be: “my family.” Whatever the future brings for the most recent set of CKA graduates, they leave the program with the confidence and ability to cook good food from scratch for those they love.

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