After 37 memorable years teaching culinary arts at Bucks County Community College, Chef Earl Arrowood announced his retirement. Thankfully, he was able to enjoy the perfect “last hoorah” before officially saying “goodbye.”
For nine weeks over the summer, Arrowood instructed 11 adult students selected for the inaugural cohort of Fresh Start – a joint venture between the college and Bucks County Opportunity Council, the anti-poverty agency of the county.
Participants gained basic culinary techniques needed for entry-level positions in the food industry, such as a prep cook, and successfully passed the ServSafe examination, certified by the National Restaurant Association.
The Fresh Start class was comprised of clients from BCOC’s Economic Self-Sufficiency Program, which helps low-income individuals find ways to leave poverty behind and earn a livable wage.
“That was the bottom line of what this whole program was about, the inspiration and motivation of these adults who have been in the system for a long, long time,” Arrowood said. “These people are at their wits end with regard to, ‘Am I still employable? I’m middle-aged.’”
According to Tammy Schoonover, director of community services at BCOC, it’s practically impossible to live comfortably in Bucks County while earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“Moving out of poverty requires some training or education beyond high school. It doesn’t have to be a four-year degree. It can be a certification program. It can be a stepping stone to get some of those skills that one needs to increase their income potential,” she said. “Fresh Start was conceived in an effort to attract our clients who, maybe their backgrounds wouldn’t necessarily lend them to be a nurse, but we have found that the food service industry tends to be a little more forgiving.”
Fresh Start, which was entirely grant-funded thanks to Provident Bank Foundation, took place in the new, state-of-the-art culinary arts lab at BCCC’s Newtown campus. The first two weeks of the program consisted of two, eight-hours days, during which students learned about sanitation, food handling and food management.
Over the next seven Fridays, for three hours each day, Arrowood provided basic food training. His mentees gained knowledge in kitchen philosophy and management; received a crash course on how to use machines such as the grill, oven and dishwasher; learned basic knife technique; and became fast experts on how to prepare everything from chicken and pasta to salad and vegetables.
Each week’s lesson led to the capstone project, which tasked the class with preparing complete meals for 70 seniors living at the low-income Charter Arms apartment complex in Warminster. The seniors enjoyed a hearty spread of grilled chicken, an Asian-style black rice dish, vegetables and made-from-scratch cornbread muffins.
“The idea of this capstone was to serve the community,” Arrowood said. “The students were just enamored with the whole idea that they could do this in such a short period of time, and deliver a meal for shut-ins. It was a fantastic opportunity for everybody.”
On the days students weren’t in the kitchen, BCOC self-sufficiency coaches helped them with resumes, interview skills, job search techniques and other soft skills such as communication, punctuality and teamwork. Additionally, BCOC supported students with transportation to the college and childcare in order to help them focus their energy on Fresh Start, rather than surviving day-to-day.
To date, a number of graduates have already landed entry-level food industry jobs at area organizations, including Parx Casino.
“These are clients who, some of them have experienced homelessness and they’re in our rehousing program. This is a big deal,” Schoonover said. “We wanted a way to get people thinking that, ‘You’re not stuck. There’s opportunity here for you to learn new skills and increase your earning potential.’ And I think that’s priceless for some folks who literally come from homelessness.”
The Opportunity Council and BCCC have plans to host another Fresh Start cohort, though the start date has yet to be determined. Despite his recent retirement, Arrowood said he would be honored to continue his work with the program.
“They’re knocking on doors. Some of these people never thought they could do what they did,” he said. “I think it’s phenomenal.”
For more information on the program, or to contact graduates for potential employment, contact Schoonover at 215-345-8175, Ext. 218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com