Metro, News

Opportunities grow at Harvest Kitchen

Program offers culinary training, mentorship, partnership for local agriculture

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Harvest Kitchen offers culinary training and retail sales experience to adolescents aged 16 to 19 involved with the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families. The Kitchen provides a 20-week training program.

Every Wednesday, students emerge from the Sciences Library to the aroma of baked goods mixed with fresh greens and apple cider. The weekly farmers market off Thayer Street reliably draws a crowd for the quality of its products, but one of its stalls offers more than what meets the nose.

Harvest Kitchen, a non-profit, sells crisp pickles, apple sauce and more delicacies made by youth in a culinary training program in Pawtucket. The Kitchen serves its food in-house at a cafe in Pawtucket and offers services such as co-packing, label production and food for retail at other locations.

Adolescents ages 16 to 19 involved with the Department of Children, Youth and Families — who in many cases have faced barriers including homelessness, poverty or incarceration — can apply to Harvest Kitchen’s program. The program runs for 20 weeks and includes culinary training, retail sales experience and temporary paid internship placement. On top of the culinary training, staff at Harvest Kitchen help program participants navigate challenges like health insurance, social security, parenting and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

For some participants, the Kitchen is a first step in reintegrating to society after spending time in correctional facilities. Larome Myrick, executive director of juvenile correctional services at R.I. DCYF, said that the training program is part of the state’s targeted efforts to reduce incarceration and keep youth out of detention facilities. “We understand that sending the kids to a secure correctional facility is the last straw,” he said. “So how about we try something else before we send kids there?”

Job Charlot, a program alum who currently works at Harvest Kitchen, praised the Kitchen’s director, Jen Stott, for her availability and dedication to every participant. “She always looks out for the kids,” Charlot said. “Every time I need help, she’s with me.”

Beyond serving youth in Rhode Island, the Kitchen aims to bolster small, local farms by turning B-grade foods into more valuable products. For example, “ugly” apples can be turned into apple sauce that is attractive to consumers. John Scott, community liaison for the R.I. DCYF, said he hopes this facet of the program will help reduce waste and buttress local agriculture.

The program began as a collaboration between Farm Fresh Rhode Island and DCYF when the groups received a grant to launch the initiative in 2009. The Kitchen has since trained over 130 youths and partnered with over 50 local farmers and producers. The training originally involved only preserving jarred foods, but it has expanded to include instruction in preparing soups, baked goods and cafe menu items like fish melts and grain bowls, as well as catering private events and working retail at the Cafe and farmers markets. The Kitchen graduates forty students a year, though the class size is limited by the physical space of the kitchen and the emphasis on personal attention.

Harvest Kitchen moved into its current cafe space in Pawtucket in 2017 — an open, airy space with clean light from surrounding tall windows.

“Part of the reason why we’re here in Pawtucket and not in downtown Providence where we’d probably be busier is because we wanted to support the surrounding community with more nutritious and locally sourced foods,” said Sean Kontos, a chef in the Kitchen.

The low rent of the location also helps keep the menu prices down: $2 bagels; $4 breakfast sandwiches; a $7 Ocean State melt made with local fish salad, greens and cheese on toasted whole wheat bread.

Bernard Miller has been a chef and instructor for Harvest Kitchen for four months, leaving his career in commercial kitchens to join the program. “I’m giving back what I know to (the students) so that they can use whatever I know,” he said. “Sharpen their swords a little bit, you know what I mean?”

Miller, whose favorite menu item is the Ocean State melt, said he likes the mental challenge of the job and working with kids to keep them engaged. He took a break in the middle of the interview to joke with a student — laughing with him about a song.

Volunteers from Providence and local universities join staff to help run the cafe. Gwen Edwards, a Providence local who has volunteered at Harvest Kitchen since late winter, enjoys partaking in the culinary training portion of the program. “I love participating in the kids’ learning about cooking, about food, about working together as a team,” she said. “I love the process of watching them over the period of time that I work here getting more and more solid as a team.”

Stott is looking forward to the opening of the Farm Fresh Food Hub in the next few years, a single location that will house Farm Fresh R.I.’s many programs and provide space for other local business. Stott hopes additional space will allow her to scale up the Kitchen’s program and production.