TAMPA — In the industrial kitchen of the Italian Club, chef Rick Ceglio nodded after sampling the pico de gallo Jocelyn Lester had prepared.
“You don’t need to add anything,” he said.
Ceglio had spent the morning talking about the merits of a good pico de gallo as his five pupils stood at their cutting board stations, loaded with onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro, limes, avocados and leeks.
He’d taught them how to safely handle their knives, how to dice the tomatoes (not so big that the pieces break the chips) and how to handle their onions (with the rings intact so people can tell it’s homemade). But mostly what he hoped to teach them were things they wouldn’t learn elsewhere: soft skills, how to interact in a workplace.
“If you can handle a knife and you know the difference between a pot and pan, you’re in good shape with me,” he said. “Everything else will be retaught anyway.”
Tonight, the students will be part of 13 graduating as the first cohort of FRESHForce, a new initiative started by Feeding Tampa Bay to help end food insecurity by helping people with barriers to entry in the workforce find employment and income.
“We look to see what we can do beyond serving a meal that day or a bag of groceries that would last a couple days,” said Matt Spence, chief programs officer at Feeding Tampa Bay. “We started looking for strategies that would not just serve people in line for food but serve people out of a line."
The program, funded by Amazon, DTCC, Valley Bank and the state division of cultural affairs, offers training in one of three tracks — culinary, warehouse or commercial driver’s license — to anyone eligible for Feeding Tampa Bay’s food services.
The students each receive a stipend for the 10-week program and attend courses Monday through Friday.
Lester, 54, held a corporate job for several years. In a 4-year span, she lost her mother and grandson in traumatic events, she said, and she later lost her job.
“It kind of put me in a situation where I lost myself,” she said. “I was in corporate America, and of course, corporate America is corporate America.”
FRESHForce, she said, has given her renewed hope about re-entering the workforce at what she called a “seasoned” age. Ceglio, she said, even made breakfast for the students each day.
“Everyone has a background, everyone has a past,” Lester said. “But you can’t look back on your past, you have to look forward to your future and this is giving a lot of open doors to a lot of people.”
Derrell Smith, who worked in a storeroom for six years, was enrolled in the warehouse training program, where graduates receive OSHA, forklift and certified logistics credentials. His arrest record, he said, had been a barrier to entry for many other opportunities.
“A lot of us have skills, but nobody would hire us,” he said. “Feeding Tampa Bay looked past our pasts and gave us this opportunity to be the best we can be, to rebuild and to grow. It’s not just the money, that helps. To know that somebody believes in you and is giving you an opportunity, while others push you to the side, it means a lot.”
Spence said he hopes the program will continue to change the perception of food insecurity.
“Ninety-plus percent of the people who receive assistance take it back to a home they own or rent,” he said. “They’re your neighbors. They’re people who are serving you in a restaurant. They’re people who are sitting near you in class. It’s honestly a blessing. It’s a privilege, not just to serve somebody a meal. It’s a privilege to offer them a future.”