Sunday, December 29, 2002

Class, job, food for hungry



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People kept trying to tell me about this school. And they kept weeping. Well, not actually sobbing. But their eyes were wet, and at least one woman blew her nose although I am sure she did not have a cold. And allergy season is over.

What a bunch of weenies, I thought. Haven't they ever seen a graduation ceremony before? And it's not as if these students had to finish a doctoral dissertation. All they had to do was learn to cook. Oh, and some of them had to learn they don't have to be somebody's punching bag. Some came to school from homeless shelters. Some returned to battered women's shelters after class. Some have fought their way past alcohol and other drugs to get to this place.

Some knew the clock was running out on welfare, and they still didn't have the first idea of how to go to work. Besides chopping and cutting and basting and broiling, these students learn how to form car pools. They learn about finding child care - nearly half are single parents - and working peaceably with others "crammed in a hot kitchen," as one man put it.

Feeding the hungry

With appropriate pomp, the Cincinnati Cooks Class of Dec. 20, 2002, walked up the aisle at Queen City Vocational School. Dazzling smiles. Fresh, red carnations on spotless white chef's blouses, embroidered with their names. Crisp white hats and suitably baggy chef's checked pants.

These nine bring the total to 75. Nearly 70 percent of graduates are working full time six months later. Several now find themselves in a position to hire other graduates. Which they are proud to do. Pride is a byproduct of this school. Maybe it begins with knowing they help feed hungry people.

This culinary school is brilliantly pragmatic, cooked up as part of the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Community Kitchen. Program manager Dennis Coskie and chef Fernando Scarbriel use surplus food from the FreeStore/FoodBank. The meals they produce - about 150 a day during each 10-week session - are sent to the hungry in various shelters and in the FreeStore's Kids Cafe. The school saves participating agencies about $195,000 a year, not to mention what taxpayers save every time someone moves off welfare.

Each graduate stepped to the lectern, addressing an audience of mostly their own families, including their kids, who were no doubt learning a valuable lesson of their own. Flash cameras. Much applause. An occasional appreciative whoop.

A mother of four said, "I learned so much, not just how to cook, a lot about myself. I was so proud to help somebody else."

Another said, "This is the first thing I have ever completed in my life. Ever." He paused. "Thank you, Chef, 'cause I know I got on your nerves so much."

The chef smiled but did not argue.

Afterward, I can promise you that the refreshments were remarkable. The next class will graduate noon Feb. 7 in similar ceremonies at 425 Ezzard Charles Drive. If you go, take a big appetite.

And some tissue.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.



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