Filling Up on Caridad

Caridad Community Kitchen prepares hundreds of thousands of meals for the hungry by providing job training for those who need it most.

July 11, 2016

FeaturesIssue 19: July/August 2016

Inside a plain, gray-block building just north of downtown Tucson, a fierce battle against hunger takes place day in and day out. On the edge of the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood, students at Caridad Community Kitchen prepare hundreds of thousands of meals and distribute them to those in need throughout the city.

Under the program, a division of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, the herculean task of cooking those meals falls to culinary students training under the watchful eye of an executive chef and other staff members. The program can be a lifeline for students who—like those they help feed—may be in need of a boost.

“We bring in people who have faced some sort of barrier to [entering] the workforce,” says Abby Rosen, a chef and program instructor. “That can be long-term unemployment, underemployment, a single parent re-entering the workforce or out of long-term incarceration.”

Although the program costs just $25, expectations for qualified low-income students are high. Once accepted into the program, students must agree to undergo drug testing, work on their feet for at least six hours a day, and be punctual. Tardiness can get students dismissed.

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At Life in Christ Community Church, volunteers help hand out hot meals prepared at Caridad.

Students embark on the rigorous hands-on training by first learning to hold a knife properly. They then begin exploring the intricacies of sautéing, pan-frying, and other basic cooking techniques. When students are not slicing onions and marinating meat, they are learning about job-related life skills.

“What sets us apart from other culinary schools is that while our students are doing all that, they’re also helping prepare 9,000 hot meals a month,” said Rosen, explaining that volunteers assemble another 5,000 sack lunches in the same time frame.

Yvonne Delfinado was no stranger to cooking when she enrolled in the program, but she says that going through it opened her eyes to a whole new culinary experience.

“It’s an intense program,” said Delfinado, who is in her early 30s. “The fast pace is challenging.”

Tony Gonzales was one of two students enrolled in Caridad’s 10-week class this spring.

Tony Gonzales was one of two students enrolled in Caridad’s 10-week class this spring.

The single mom dropped out of high school in her senior year. She looked to Caridad as a conduit to a steady job. Every morning for 10 weeks, she got up at 5 and rode three buses to get from her south side home to Caridad, which is Spanish for charity. After eight hours in the kitchen, she rode another three buses home.

Delfinado and Tony Gonzales, a caregiver with salt-and-pepper hair, were the only two students in Caridad’s smallest class since the program began in July 2012.

“They had to work a lot harder,” executive chef Jon Wirtis said of his two students.

By the end of the program’s sixth week, Delfinado and Gonzales were well-versed in meal preparation for the homeless and working poor. In Week 7, the Caridad building transformed into a restaurant and the two students had a chance to cook for paying customers.

The kitchen bustles on the day set aside to serve a $12 three-course meal and a beverage for a lunch crowd. The occasion marks a departure from the batch cooking that the students are used to. Instead of making 40 gallons of chili or roasting 400 pieces of chicken, they are preparing individual meals.

Each culinary class puts on a café day. It is an integral part of the program that aims to equip students with training for an array of jobs within the food industry.

“This is called a la minute cooking, which means you order it and we cook it now,” Wirtis said. “It’s a very different style of cooking for them to get to know how to do.”

Yvonne Delfinado dropped out of high school her senior year; she enrolled in Caridad’s culinary training program as a conduit to a steady job.

Yvonne Delfinado dropped out of high school her senior year; she enrolled in Caridad’s culinary training program as a conduit to a steady job.

All hands are on deck in the large kitchen as patrons start arriving at Caridad Café. Delfinado slices cucumbers and helps puts together orders. Gonzales focuses on the food presentation techniques of Wirtis, who demonstrates how to arrange a salmon BLT on a plate. Gonzales keeps up the task. “Nice job,” the chef tells him.

Meanwhile, sous chef Marco Parra grills Korean barbecue ribs marinated in soy, garlic, ginger, and lime, one of five entrées on the menu. The sweet smell of this diner favorite wafts through the kitchen and melds with a smorgasbord of aromas. Program graduate David Rogers sautés chicken in a large skillet and several other alumni rush in and out of the kitchen, holding orders or plates. Out in the lunch room, diners rave about the food.

“This is the first time we’ve been to the Caridad Café,” said Casey Woods, who was having lunch with friends and family members. “These students have worked really hard. It just makes your heart melt because of knowing the sacrifice they and their families have gone through for 10 weeks of intense training.”

Gonzales, who wants to specialize in nutrition for diabetics, said support from his employer as well as family and friends have been crucial. Although it’s difficult for students to hold down a job while enrolled in the program, Gonzales was able to work because his boss allowed him to work flexible hours. His son helped out with financial obligations. Delfinado relied on her family for moral support and on her savings to get her through the 10 weeks.

Both students looked relieved at the end of Caridad Café. As part of the event, they had to briefly introduce themselves to diners. For Delfinado, it was the toughest part.

“I was really nervous,” she said after all the diners had left.

Delfinado and Gonzales make up Class 18. In the previous 17 classes, 116 women and men completed the program. On average, nine out 12 students admitted to Caridad graduate. Eighty-five percent get a job.

In 2011, the food bank took over Caridad when Holy Family Catholic Church could no longer afford to run the years-long program—even as the need to address hunger in the community grew.

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John Benson (standing ) was in the first graduating class at Caridad Kitchen. Today, he distributes meals at Life in Christ Community Church.

People think of hunger as just the person who doesn’t have a house and pushes a cart,” said Kristen Culliney, program manager. “We don’t think about working poor families that have to make a choice between paying rent or going to the grocery store to get some frozen pizzas for dinner.”

One in three children and one in five adults are at risk for hunger in Pima County, statistics show.

“That’s people who on a pretty regular basis don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Culliney said.

To offer relief, Caridad distributes 400 to 600 meals that Holy Family Church and various other congregations serve in rotation seven days a week. The program also delivers meals to several Boys & Girls Club sites and some shelters.

As Caridad students continue to cook for the needy, those who have graduated get an opportunity to work at Caridad Catering. The for-profit social enterprise, which launched in July 2014, caters everything from sandwiches to food platters and a variety of entrées for businesses, nonprofits, private parties, and special events. Caridad often buys surplus food from the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market—another program of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona—to incorporate into its meals.

Besides keeping former students employed, Caridad Catering helps offset some of the costs associated with the culinary program. Caridad makes a $6,500 investment per student.

“Whether you can afford a five-star meal or whether you can’t afford that meal at all, we’re going to put out the best product we possibly can,” Wirtis said.

Regardless of who consumes the meals Caridad students make, the Caridad team holds the budding chefs to high standards. Chef Wirtis has worked in the food industry for 30 years, including five as a teacher at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon.

“Whether you can afford a five-star meal or whether you can’t afford that meal at all, we’re going to put out the best product we possibly can,” Wirtis said.

Two years ago, Jeff Witham was working hard to stay off drugs when he discovered Caridad. He was unemployed and sleeping on a friend’s couch. Witham had a tough time finding and keeping a job. His formal education ended at 16, when he dropped out of high school.

“I guess you could say I messed up my life some,” said Witham, now 23. “I just didn’t make smart choices as a young guy.”

He was searching online for work when he came across an ad seeking applicants for the culinary program. He applied and was accepted just as his friend kicked him out. Thanks to another friend who took him in, Witham was able to complete his training.

He grew up with his great-grandmother, a Southerner who was married to an Italian man. “She would always cook Southern food and Italian food all the time, from scratch,” Witham recalled.

Jeff Witham graduated from Caridad’s culinary program two years ago; since then, he’s worked at Sauce Pizza & Wine and is training to be kitchen manager.

Jeff Witham graduated from Caridad’s culinary program two years ago; since then, he’s worked at Sauce Pizza & Wine and is training to be kitchen manager.

Watching her, Witham learned to cook and enjoyed doing it. “I figured Caridad would help me get all the skills I needed to get a job in the kitchen. Once I got there, by Week 2 or 3, I just felt like it was my thing.”

Initially, “I wasn’t taking it seriously, I was cutting corners,” he said. That is, until Rosen, who is in charge of the academic side of the program, stepped in. “She gave me a talk and it really just kind of lit a fire,” Witham recalled.

He buckled down. With assistance from Caridad, he secured a job at a casual Italian restaurant a week before graduation. He has worked in the kitchen doing everything from washing dishes to making pizzas. He is now a prep cook training to be kitchen manager.

Knowing that he helped cook food for people going through a rough patch made him appreciate Caridad even more. He views his culinary journey as life changing. “I’ve been clean for three and a half years now,” he said. “I work all the time and I take care of my son on my days off.”

The for-profit Caridad Catering caters everything from office meetings to upscale dinners; here, David Rogers sets up for an event in the Catalina Foothills.

The for-profit Caridad Catering caters everything from office meetings to upscale dinners; here, David Rogers sets up for an event in the Catalina Foothills.

He’s been transformed in other ways. When he walked into Caridad for the first time, Witham weighed nearly 300 pounds. Today, he weighs just under 160 pounds. “I owe them a great deal,” he said, referring to the Caridad team. “They really helped me get a lot of confidence in myself.”

The clock hasn’t yet struck 5 p.m. on a warm May day when people, some carrying congratulatory balloons, start streaming into the Caridad building.

It’s Graduation Day.

Guests sit at tables adorned with red roses in glass jars. Back in the kitchen, a cornucopia of food that students and chefs had previously prepared for the special day tops the counters.

Elsewhere in the building, Delfinado and Gonzales follow tradition as they briefly gather in a walk-in freezer with Rosen, Parra, Wirtis, and a few others. The chefs who guided the pair through the program offer congratulations and thank them for their contributions to Caridad. “We’re really going to miss you,” Rosen tells them.

At Holy Family Church on West University Blvd., people line up for free sack lunches prepared by Caridad.

At Holy Family Church on West University Blvd., people line up for free sack lunches prepared by Caridad.

The graduates, in their brand-new white chef coats, beam. “It’s been a long day,” Delfinado said. “We’re almost through it, though.”

Her brown, wavy hair, usually pinned up in the kitchen, tumbles past her shoulders. She is surrounded by family, including 12-year-old son, Xavier Mungia. Standing at 5 feet, he’s already taller than his mother. The boy is a big reason why Delfinado enrolled in the program. “I wanted to show him that I could take on anything and so can he.”

Nearby, Gonzales chats with family and friends. “I learned so much in these past 10 weeks,” he said. “It’s been a great experience.”

The speeches begin. Delfinado and Gonzales are showered with praise for their dedication to the program. Each gets a bag with chef-appropriate gifts. They also get their $25 initial investment back, twofold.

Then the graduating members of Caridad’s Class 18 are off to begin another chapter in their lives.







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