Pittsburgh-based Springboard Kitchens chef trainer Darrell Evans and one of his students, John Henderson, entered a local Iron Chef-style competition, preparing a brunch menu from ingredients revealed just moments before prep time. The team whipped up crispy fried chicken, onion- and thyme-infused waffles, chili maple syrup, and a candied bacon whipped cream. Nobody was surprised to see this duo take an overwhelming victory. Evans and Henderson do this every day.

Evans' job at Springboard Kitchens is twofold. First, he trains culinary students with barriers to employment (criminal records, chronic unemployment, disabilities, etc.), eventually sending them to internships and the job market with strong references.

But second, and perhaps more interesting, Evans creates menus from rescued food.

Each month in 2012, Springboard Kitchens rescued 15,000 pounds of produce, dairy and protein that otherwise would have been discarded by food banks or grocery stores. He and students like Henderson cranked out more than 4,000 daily meals made from scratch for soup kitchens, nonprofit organizations, and groups serving food-insecure populations, like the homeless or abused women in shelters.

These organizations can order inexpensive meals prepared by Springboard Kitchens rather than dedicate human or financial resources to maintain a high-volume kitchen. Springboard Kitchens keeps costs below $2 per plate because about 80 percent of the ingredients come from the rescued food.

Any given day, Evans might get a truck of bell peppers, a van of milk, a 20-pound box of chicken. He never knows in advance what food donations will show up, needing to be used immediately. Henderson, a student in the final phase of the 16-week curriculum, has learned to prepare complete meals on the fly. Henderson and his classmates break down cuts of meat, simmer stock from the bones, and grind the rest into sausage. They even scrape the seeds from bell peppers, roast them and crush them into spices.

Springboard Kitchens

Springboard Kitchens prepared Thanksgiving meals for needy families at an Urban League of Pittsburgh event. (Photo: Springboard Kitchens)

Every step of the process transforms Springboard Kitchens' students. They learn kitchen math while calculating portions of apple crisp from fruit donations. They've also learned to take initiative, sorting through the rescued produce to identify spoilage. The program starts students with high-volume catering because there's some distance from the customer — a boxed lunch prepared in advance means nobody's waiting around while a nervous student remakes a botched salad. Students work toward making tuna sandwiches during the lunch rush at the Springboard Café — for paying customers in real time.

Student Services Manager Krista Brolley says food services is a forgiving industry for folks with barriers, but to get and keep choice jobs with a future, employees "have to be able to work as a team, solve problems, communicate well, and work with urgency." This is why the program includes coursework in life skills, classes with titles like handling criticism; professionalism and personal presentation; and understanding and working with your barriers.

Henderson, for instance, is in the program with his partner, Stephanie Jackson. The pair learned through their communications skills course to speak up about a time conflict —classes begin about a half hour before drop-off time at their daughter's daycare. Before taking the class, they might have just dropped out rather than voice their concerns, but instead they have worked out an arrangement so Jackson can begin class a bit later.

Darrell Evans, Springboard Kitchens

Darrell Evans (second from right) instructs his students at Springboard Kitchens. (Photo: Springboard Kitchens)

Springboard Kitchens is part of a nationwide initiative called Catalyst Kitchens. Forty-five similar programs throughout the country collaborate to brainstorm best practices for coursework, training and even enterprise options. Catalyst Kitchens also offers leverage for grant opportunities. National Director David Carlton points out that while all Catalyst Kitchens programs have sustainability as a core tenet (Springboard Kitchens meets 88 percent of its annual budget through meal contracts and deli operation), all the programs also rely on grant funding. "We leverage our collective impact to bring in large funders. Walmart, which is a potentially controversial funder, donated $400,000 to our member programs in 2012."

Catalyst Kitchens also procured a grant from USDA to educate children receiving meals in summer feeding programs. "Our students produce meals, put them in front of kids, and they don't know what it is,” says Carlton. “We use the grant funding to teach children what raw kale or collard greens look like, or show them purple potatoes."

Catalyst Kitchens has been around for only two years, and already has trained more than 3,000 people. Nationwide, the programs have served 7 million meals to disadvantaged people.

"We don't want our graduates to get a job at McDonald's. Our goal is to train them for stable jobs with a living wage and benefits," Carlton says. For Springboard Kitchens, this means even its graduates who work in a dish room are earning at minimum $10 per hour, with benefits, at one of the stadiums in Pittsburgh. Springboard Kitchens has a 91 percent job placement rate for its graduates.

This summer, Henderson exceeded the standards. Upon graduation, he earned a chef position in the executive suites for Levy Restaurants, developing menus in PNC Park's Lexus Club.

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Pittsburgh culinary training program rescues produce and people
Using donated food, Springboard Kitchens offers opportunities to people who otherwise would have trouble finding a job.