Homeless Cooking

The End Hunger Network provides more than three million meals per year. By way of unique partnership many of those meals are prepared by the very people who once went hungry. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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Kelly Torres is standing in a huge, industrial kitchen peeling and chopping onions.

"I have been through some pulls and tugs and you know, just an absolute roller coaster ride and I know, no matter what, I have a skill."

Torres used to be homeless. She married straight out of high school, had two children and then her husband left her. She ended up at a shelter and heard about a cooking program offered by SEARCH. She enrolled and was taught everything from knife skills to proper food storage.

"I'm able to stand on my own two feet and you know, take care of myself and my family. And it's really a good feeling you know, that I don't have to depend on somebody else. I'm able to be gainfully employed."

SEARCH offers the culinary classes to unskilled workers, preparing them for jobs in the hotel and restaurant industry. The only problem was SEARCH needed more kitchen space for the training. A few miles away, End Hunger Network had a brand-new 15,000 square foot kitchen, storage and operations facility, but needed trained kitchen staff. SEARCH Director of Food Services Chris Olsen says the two organizations quickly decided to work together.

"Far as I know, it's the only thing like it in the country. End Hunger wisely realized or understood that while they're very good at rescuing food, they know nothing about cooking and preparing that food and getting it out into the hands of the needy. And SEARCH, having this culinary program which we've had for some ten years now, we're sort of the local experts on how to take excess food, process it in a tasty manner, in a safe manner and get it into the hands of those who need it."

The food is distributed by the Houston Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, several local shelters and the main dining hall at SEARCH. David Davenport is the executive director of End Hunger Network.

"If you walked around here, walked around the facility I think from time to time it'd be very difficult to tell who is a SEARCH employee and who is a End Hunger Network employee. And that's really the strength of it. It's a seamless collaboration, we work very closely together to accomplish a wide variety of goals. And it just works."

It definitely worked for Kelly Torres, who ended up being hired full-time in the kitchen.

"I feel really good that I'm able to, like I said, stand on my own two feet and I just -- it's reassuring to me that you know, for other people to be able to come through the program like I did."

Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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