Deep in the heart of Weinberg Commons on Springdale Road, the kitchen is buzzing with activity. The Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey is busy preparing regular food for the community, as well as traditional foods for the upcoming High Holidays.
It’s a product of the JFCS’ Soups and Sweets program, which provides culinary training to individuals with disabilities, to help prepare them for a career in the hospitality or food industry. Training is provided by a professional chef and experienced special education instructor, and funded through the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
“We started in 2013, as a training program to get young adults with disabilities food service skills so that they might leave after the training, with real, tangible vocational skills that they would be able to be employed in the community,” said Barbara Abrams, special needs director for JFCS.
Students are present for 200 hours of training. For the first 100 hours, they arrive in the morning, learn basic skills, what weights and measures are, how to hold knives and other utensils, and how to use kitchen equipment. That’s the first three months, from 9 a.m. to noon. Once completed, students work through the next 100 hours, working in the kitchen and preparing food for the catering business between 12:30 and 4 p.m.
“We have a chef, and an educator in the kitchen, too, who help them learn the best ways to break down the tasks of each skill, and then we have a catering manager who takes the products they make into the community to sell. The proceeds and revenue from the food all go back into the training program,” Abrams added.
That chef – Cynthia Kleinbart – flitted about the cramped space, attempting to direct traffic and work on production the best she could.
“The afternoon students have done all the preliminary training, so now we do the production here. We’re making 1,050 chocolate chip cookies. We already made 350 lemon thumbprint cookies and we’ve also made about 20 trays of assorted brownies. It’s a whole team effort. We have a wide variety of volunteers, and everyone chips in,” she said.
“They do everything: they learn how to set up the kitchen and how to clean the kitchen, opening ovens, using mitts, making different dishes. It’s more of a universal education. We’re trying to use all the modern gadgets with them but it’s more about life skills – we try to mix it up so they get a little bit of skill in everything.”
Abrams also revealed students who complete the program have a leg up on their better-abled fellow employees.
“Everyone goes through the universal ServSafe Food Handlers course, and they all leave having taken the exam. And 98 percent of the students who have taken the exam have passed it. We’ve gotten feedback from multiple chefs who have told us their inclusion has changed the way kitchens are run. They can be hectic, cramped, intense places, but the knowledge that someone with special needs is part of the group, means they can slow things down a bit, ramp down the intensity to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
So far, according to Abrams, Soups and Sweets has graduated 77 students, 87 percent of whom are currently employed, and 76 percent of employed grads are working in the foodservice industry at locations such as Iron Hill Brewery, ShopRite, Sodexo, Wegmans and Chickie and Pete’s.