Kitchens for Good

Becky Arrolando spent 26 years in a cycle of addiction, gangs, incarceration, and homelessness. Then, in 2017, while staying at a sober living home post-incarceration, she met an apprentice enrolled at Kitchens for Good who told her about the opportunity to gain skills, self-confidence, and a job.

“At Kitchens for Good we believe that all food has power and all people have potential,” said Jennifer Gilmore, CEO of the nonprofit, whose aim is to prepare individuals who are transitioning from homelessness, incarceration, and foster care for careers in the culinary and hospitality industry.  Because of the stigma attached to being unemployed, having gaps in work history, or lacking transferable skills, many system-impacted individuals are left with few options and none of the social support needed to re-enter the workforce and find stability. This has resulted in unemployment rates of 27-48%. KFG is working to change those numbers through a combination of technical career education, career coaching, life skills classes, and paid employment. 

Becky applied and was accepted into Kitchens for Good’s culinary apprenticeship program and after her training, she was placed in a job at Guahan Grill. Within 18 months she was promoted and given raises five times in a career transformation that changed her life. Becky opened a bank account for the first time, saved up enough to buy a car, and got back in touch with her kids after being estranged from them during a decade of addiction. Becky also transitioned off of CalFresh and Medical, moved out of a sober living home and into her own apartment, and her parole status was downgraded from “high control” to “low risk.” 

“The program taught me so much more than cooking,” Becky said. “It taught me how to manage money. It taught me how to interact with people in a professional and personal way. It taught me hope. And, most of all, it taught me self respect.”  

The program has proven to be a win-win for employees, employers, and even parole officers. “Ten to twenty probation officers attend every graduation,” explained Aviva Paley, a social entrepreneur who oversees the marketing and fundraising efforts for Kitchens for Good. “We make them look good and vice versa. We recruit students from other service agencies—parole, probation, sober living homes, homeless shelters—because they experience the biggest employment challenges and the greatest need is workforce skills and job placement. What makes us really unique is that it’s a vocational program with a trade.”

KFG successfully equips apprentices to not only get jobs but to begin a career that disrupts the cycle of poverty and incarceration. There are three apprenticeship tracks: Culinary, Baking, and Food Service Management. Regardless of the track, all programs begin with a ten-week career readiness and workforce training course (360 hours), which is followed by 17 months (2,400 hours) of paid on-the-job training with employer partners. The training and employment services are paired with ongoing career coaching, case management, and support. Over the last five years, KFG has helped launch over 300 apprentices’ careers and supported them as they advanced in the hospitality industry and reached their personal and professional goals.

“Initially KFG was about jobs,” said Gilmore. “But what we found was that we were training people for jobs that are paying below a living wage. We had to ask ourselves, what is our end goal? Careers are more meaningful and we wanted to create a ladder. We were able to move in that direction through the apprenticeship program.”  

After completing her apprenticeship certificate, Becky became the Restaurant’s General Manager and she now  hires other apprentices to work in her kitchen and provides them ongoing mentorship and support. “Project Launch has given me my life back,” she said. “Not only to help myself but so that I can help others who have struggled just like I have.”  

“The hospitality industry makes up  11% of all jobs in San Diego County, and their number one challenge is finding well trained personnel,”Gilmore added, noting that KFG students are employed in many of the top fast casual and fine dining restaurants in San Diego, not in fast food restaurants. “The trend that we hear is that our students are really hungry to learn and they tend to be hard working. The pitfalls tend to be soft skills – showing up late, anger management.” 

Kitchens for Good’s vision for the future is to see a thriving food and hospitality industry in which businesses and the community members work together to advance the wellbeing of workers, the environment, and community health. This includes paying hospitality and food workers a livable wage and ensuring fair and equitable labor practices that offer advancement opportunities. “We support our students earning a livable wage, which leads to lower turnover,” Gilmore said. “But there is tremendous fear in the hospitality sector around offering a livable wage and passing the cost on to customers. On the other hand, there’s a labor shortage for these jobs. It’s a reality that San Diego County restaurants are going to have to deal with.”

Kitchens for Good also aims to scale its programs and social enterprise to provide more individuals with the training and support to launch meaningful careers, while expanding career training pathways across the food sector. “We received a lot of outreach from people who wanted to become bakers, but the training we provided wasn’t enough,” Paley explained. “Employers were looking for people already trained, so we launched the Baking Apprenticeship Program in July 2020 to train 50 students a year in all aspects of baking, from wholesale bread production to more fine pastries. Now we have commitments from 12 different employers. With over 250 graduates, we even have alumni who are now hiring students.”

As KFG grows its new e-commerce and retail social enterprises, the organization hopes to create a scalable model that can be duplicated in other communities across the country by other community kitchen workforce development programs. Beyond job training, a key element of these programs is civic engagement. For KFG in San Diego, this is achieved through Project Nourish, a program designed to combat hunger by preparing and distributing over 288,000 scratch-made meals throughout the county each year. “It’s one of our participants’ favorite things to do because they’ve been on the other side,” said Gilmore. “Folks are really coming back into society and having a positive impact.”

Jennifer Gilmore is the CEO of Kitchens For Good, and serves on the Board of Directors for the San Diego Hunger Coalition. Jennifer's commitment to addressing hunger in the region is evident through her past leadership at San Diego's leading food banks. As CEO of Kitchens For Good, Jennifer oversees the robust culinary apprenticeship program and community feeding programs.

Becky Arroloando is the General Manager at Guahan Grill, and a Kitchens For Good apprenticeship graduate.

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