Updated: Jan 29, 2021
A family member rushed up from the audience with a rose for Nasha McMillan before she even made it onto the stage. They hugged and wiped away tears, and then Nasha walked up the few steps to loud applause and was handed her diploma.
Second Harvest’s Providence Culinary Training graduations are uniquely wonderful events. At the request of Providence’s founder, Chef Jeff Bacon, the audience is encouraged to “whoop and holler and make noise.” Everyone obliges, and often the whole room is joyously rowdy.
This was certainly the case last week, as families and community supporters celebrated Providence’s latest graduating class and as the program itself celebrated a huge milestone – our 100th graduation. Second Harvest Food Bank staff, founding supporters of the innovative training program, and Providence alumni joined the graduating students and their families at the food bank’s Providence Restaurant in Winston-Salem for the celebration.
Founded in 2006 as Triad Community Kitchen and now called Providence Culinary Training, the 13-week long program provides individuals with a pathway to family-sustaining employment in local restaurants.
“Since its inception, Providence has been opening the doors of opportunity for community members facing barriers to employment,” said Chef Bacon, Vice President and Executive Director of Providence. “Some of our students have experienced incarceration, others substance abuse or some other significant challenge. Providence is a place for second, third, and even fourth chances.”
Those chances pay off. Residents throughout the Triad can witness… and taste… our students’ successes at work in hundreds of local eateries. To date, Providence has graduated 736 students, and our alumni boast an 80% employment rate a year after graduation. Anyone who has dined out in the Triad has likely enjoyed a meal created by a Providence graduate.
“We have been very intentional about creating an environment that is welcoming and supportive, and also tough and challenging,” continued Bacon. “We have a focus on giving back to our community, and believe to our core that everyone has something they can contribute.”
This ethic was apparent at the graduation. Alumni from previous Providence classes were throughout the audience, and many took a moment to speak about their experiences and share encouragement to graduating students. Chef Vanessa Lanier, Providence’s own Executive Chef, shared about her time as a student in the program, learning new skills and a new way to support her family.
“I knew nothing about cooking,” Chef Lanier confesses, remembering back 11 years when she was a student herself at Second Harvest Food Bank’s Providence Culinary Training. “I had cooked for my family, but I had no skill worth mentioning to anyone. Chef Bacon was the only teacher in the program then, and he was sure I was going to cut myself with a knife. But through the program, I found something that I was decent at. Something that could make me happy.”
“Providence has grown to become a cornerstone program of Second Harvest, as we have sought to work collaboratively across our 18-county service area to build solutions to the underlying causes of hunger,” said Eric Aft, CEO of Second Harvest.
“When we first began Providence 13 years ago, we suspected it would be something special,” remarked Chef Bacon to the audience. “Little did we know how special, impactful, and relational it would turn out to be.” Providence began in 2006 with nine students and only one employee but has grown into a large program with many departments.
One of the recent ways that Providence has expanded is to include a Community Meals program. Students and staff work to create healthy, nutritious meals in the Providence Culinary Training kitchens that can then be re-heated and served in soup kitchens and shelters throughout Second Harvest’s network—a program that has also in recent years been essential to Second Harvest’s disaster response during hurricanes. The Community Meals program expanded to also serve hundreds of hot, delivered meals to children and special needs adults this year. This innovative program, combining culinary training with a direct service to the community, has now distributed over one million meals to families, children, and at-risk adults… and continues to grow.
Another creative way that Providence has expanded is through its social enterprises: Providence Restaurant and Catering and Providence Kitchen. These establishments host Providence’s extended residency program, allowing graduates of Providence Culinary Training to continue their culinary education and build out their resumes for up to two years in paid positions. Through all these programs combined, Second Harvest has created 72 new jobs and over 30 million dollars in economic impact to Forsyth County.
Two of the graduates at the 100th Graduation Celebration were from the residency program, both having worked at the restaurants and in catering over their residency period. Their bond from having gone through this journey together was apparent as they hugged, cheered, and high-fived each other while getting their diplomas on the stage.
WXII News 12 President and General Manager Michelle Butt, who serves as Second Harvest’s Board Chair, said Providence Culinary Training graduations are “the event that changes the trajectory of not just [the graduates] lives, but of entire families."
“We are exploring opportunities to expand the program in impactful, sustainable ways and ask for the continuing strong support of the communities we serve,” said Eric Aft.
Present and clapping loudly in the 100th Graduation Celebration audience were representatives from Bank of America who came to not only celebrate the students, but to offer exactly the type of community support Aft called for.