Updated: Jan 29
Michael Lewis admits his work ethic was not the strongest when he was a dishwasher. Dishwashing is, you can imagine, a very tedious job.
He would call out of work often, and says he nearly lost that position. It just didn’t feel like something he wanted to do. It didn’t feel important. He couldn’t see how dishes was a path to a future he wanted to have.
But a chef at the restaurant where he was washing dishes pointed out how vital dishwashing was to a successful kitchen: without the clean dishes the entire operation would grind to a halt. In fact, dishwashing was central to the success of the restaurant and to the making of great food.
Then, Michael said, he began to take his work seriously.
Seeing how it all fit together, Michael was motivated to work hard. He moved his way into being a prep cook in that restaurant and later a line cook. Soon, he enrolled at GTCC for Culinary Arts to enhance his skills.
But Michael’s story–like most of our personal stories–is not that linear and does not end there. While he was on a path that he knew was right, he became homeless. Between all of his bills and balancing work and school, he was unable to make ends meet.
Many people that the Second Harvest Food Bank network works with report similar struggles. Across Northwest North Carolina, 24% of the households our network serves report having to choose between paying for their education and buying food; 64% say they have had to choose between paying for their housing and buying food. Getting ahead and achieving in this economy is not always about will power: often, it is simply about economics.
In recent years, journalists and scholars have been looking more closely at the hardships that students face on campuses. As the enrollment of non-traditional students increases, campuses are realising that poverty creates very real barriers to success. For example, a recently released study says that food insecurity for community college students may be a high as 13%. The issue is not limited to community colleges, however.
Administrators at four-year colleges and universities have been seeing students struggling with food access on their campuses, including at Appalachian State University right here in Northwest North Carolina. Studies have shown that undergraduates are at a greater risk of hunger than the general population.
Michael showed an unusual perseverance despite his incredibly hard circumstances. Moving into Open Door Ministries in Forsyth County, he continued to practice cooking by working in the shelter kitchen for nearly 6 months. It was here that he learned about another culinary opportunity: Triad Community Kitchen.
Providence Culinary Training (PCT) is a program of Second Harvest Food Bank that provides culinary training to people just like Michael. PCT offers a 13 week hands-on, kitchen and classroom training experience, culminating in an internship in a local restaurant. PCT is designed to be very intimate– the small classes tend to create instant camaraderie, with peers adding to the social supports that the PCT instructors, many of whom are alumni, provide. Foundational to the PCT philosophy is that everybody’s story is unique and thus the supports they need will be unique. It was this understanding that made PCT the right fit for Michael.
In February of 2016 Michael Lewis joined class CC39; it was the start of what he refers to as a “God-blessed” experience. “I have never seen a more dedicated group of people working for the wellbeing of others,” he said.
Michael was an incredible student, eager to learn and eager to teach others. With the help of PCT staff, he graduated from the program and successfully found affordable housing. He is now enrolled in PCT’s Hospitality Residency Program at Second Harvest’s Providence Restaurant. The Hospitality Residency is a two year program allowing PCT graduates to work alongside seasoned chefs in a real restaurant setting while improving their resume and supporting themselves.
Michael is currently is working in a paid position as a line cook at Providence; a unique experience to continue his learning while being paid a real wage. “A person can never really be settled in who he is and who he’s trying to become until he achieves self-sufficiency,” he explains.
Michael has come a long way from being a dishwasher uncertain about his role. At Providence, he is an integral member of the team, and he knows it. Far from dishwashing, “Providence is giving me the chance to dream about my career.”
At Second Harvest and Providence we believe in people. We believe that everyone has a role in making our communities healthy and hunger-free. Whether it is through volunteering, making a donation to our programs, or, like Michael, becoming a chef spreading the love of food, we all have a part.
Thank you Michael and thank you each for being a part of #feedingcommunity.
Want to help support students like Michael at Providence? Consider a tax deductible donation– you can give online securely today.