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Posted on Fri, Aug 21, 2009 : 4:53 p.m.

Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen program serves up empowerment

By James Dickson

Ashanti McGhee, of Ypsilanti, was a "lazy cooker" - cooking to eat rather than to enjoy the experience of eating well. That all changed when she took part in the Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen job training program.

Ever since her classmates raved for her ravioli lasagna, you can't keep her out of the kitchen. Cooking is just a new favorite pastime for McGhee, but for some of her classmates, the job training program is the start of a career.

McGhee isn't sure whether she'll pursue a food-related career, but was happy to learn a life skill that can keep herself and her family well fed.

McGhee and 20 other participants in the eighth and ninth classes of the job training program graduated today, bringing the grand total to 75 since it began in 2005.

The program exists to give at-risk 17-24 year olds in Washtenaw County the chance to gain "skills and experience" that could translate into paid work, said Kevan Lawlor, board chair for the Food Gatherers.

Students in the six-week program make their way to the Robert J. Delonis Center, a homeless shelter on W. Huron in Ann Arbor, Monday through Friday, from 12:30 to 5 p.m. During this time they're given instruction, plenty of practice, and exposure to the Ann Arbor food scene. All told, students spend 120 hours at the program, including field trips to places like Zingerman's Deli and Bakehouse, Cafe Zola and Mongolian Barbeque. A lot of the time, these trips are the students' first experience being served at a sit-down restaurant. Beginning with the Monday of the second week, and continuing each Monday thereafter, students prepare dinner for the 100-plus men and women who rely upon the Delonis Center for their meals. This allows the at-risk students to be the helping hands that feed others, some of whom are even less fortunate. Each one, feed one.

Our students have overcome a lot," said Missy Orge, the Food Gatherers' director of outreach and training. "They've overcome everything from family trauma, to homelessness, to emotional and physical abuse. And on Mondays they come in and serve others." Not only do the students attend the Community Kitchen program for free, but they also receive a $500 stipend upon graduation. Not everyone graduates - family and living conditions can change drastically for students during the program - but the door is open for students who return at a later date. Orge estimated that only one in four program participants actually live with their family. Most live with friends or on their own. "These are kids who are paying the rent and handling a lot of responsibility." Upon graduation, students receive diplomas, and each graduate is given a chef's jacket with his or her name embroidered in black. Orge estimated that 88 percent of the program's students end up with jobs or internships in the food industry within the first year of graduation, sometimes working in the Food Gatherers' kitchen at the Delonis Center, preparing and serving meals. Tyler Picard, a program graduate whose skills were so advanced instructors had to give him more challenging assignments just to keep his interest, will begin his internship with the Food Gatherers next week. Internships start at $6 an hour and last 6-8 weeks. Orge said job placement gets tougher as the economy gets worse and graduates find themselves competing for jobs with people who've been in the business for years - sometimes for decades.

That's where partnerships with other community-based groups is essential. The Food Gatherers have developed a deep network of culinary experts, donors and volunteers who help them feed the homeless and train young students.

But the job training program could always use more help, especially when it comes to providing internships and employment opportunities for recent graduates. "We serve some incredibly talented and driven students," said Eileen Spring, director of the Food Gatherers. "But we need to have opportunities in line for them when school's out."

James David Dickson reports on human interest stories for He can be reached at

Top photo: Students from the Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen Job Training Program pose with one of their instructors, Chef Ellen Moloney, third from left, prior to their graduation ceremony at the Robert J. Delonis Center in Ann Arbor, Friday afternoon, August 21st. Each graduate was presented with their own chef's coat as well as a golden spoon to commemorate the occasion. Lon Horwedel | Ann

Bottom photo: Missy Orge, left, Director of Outreach and Training for Food Gatherers, hugs Ryan Garrett, one of 21 students to graduate from the Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen Job Training Program during their graduation ceremony at the Robert J. Delonis Center in Ann Arbor, Friday afternoon, August 21st. Each graduate was presented with their own chef's coat as well as a golden spoon to commemorate the occasion. Lon Horwedel | Ann


Liza Baker

Fri, Sep 11, 2009 : 11:37 a.m.

Thanks for an inspiring story!


Sun, Aug 23, 2009 : 9:15 a.m.

It really is a fine program and Ellen is just wonderful. I have volunteered in the Delonis Center kitchen while these programs have been going on and have seen first hand just how much effort Ellen puts into the program. She is an excellent chef and an even better human being!


Sat, Aug 22, 2009 : 6:23 p.m.

Thanks! We missed getting some of these young adults started earlier. It's good to see them finish the job at another location and another time. GREAT program! Congrats to all the completers! Bill Riccobono

nancy goodman

Sat, Aug 22, 2009 : 9:05 a.m.

I have firsthand experience tasting Chef Ellen's cooking. She is the best chef ever and these kids are really fortunate to have been taught by such a fine, talented chef and such a sweet, loving person. Ann Arbor is lucky to have this great community asset.


Sat, Aug 22, 2009 : 5:43 a.m.

I wish to thank you all. The inspiration and empowerment you gave.

Laura Bien

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 : 11:20 p.m.

What an excellent way to "teach a man to fish." Very empowering and also likely improves the health of the students' families at home as they use their skills in their own homes. The chef's jacket is a great ending gift. Great program.