Before learning to cook, Cathy had served six years in prison and had never held a job or connected with family. But once she graduated from FareStart -- a nonprofit that teaches low-income and homeless people culinary skills -- she was able to turn her life around.
Cathy, whose name has been changed to ensure privacy, is the inspiring product of a novel approach to tackling unemployment and homelessness. Instead of just handing out freebies, these programs get homeless people on their feet by combining vocational training and community service.
"By the time she graduated, she had undergone this incredible transformation and was pouring love into the food she made for low-income families," said David Carleton, national director of Catalyst Kitchens, an umbrella organization that oversees a network of cooking training programs. "She was connected with a community in a way she had never experienced before."
Catalyst Kitchen boasts a network of 20 members and aims to launch 50 new programs within five years, providing job training to 6,000 individuals and serving 10 million nutritious meals every year. It also provides health care services, transitional housing and transportation stipends.
To help fund nonprofits like Catalyst Kitchens, many of the partner organizations have also opened their own restaurants or catering companies. Some focus specifically on feeding low-income populations and, at the very least, maintain affordable price points for their meals.
Carleton says that once you're a part of Catalyst, you're in the family for life.
"We will continue to work with a student as long as is necessary, be it helping them through job search, housing or transportation," Carleton told The Huffington Post. "If they get laid off, they come back, and we'll go back through the process all over again."
Despite a bleak report by the National League of Cities Tuesday that almost a third of American cities plan to lay off workers this year, Carleton credits Catalyst's secret sauce -- a combination of the infectious spirit of community service and inherent power of good, nutritious food -- for helping to get his students jobs.
FareStart, one of Catalyst Kitchen's oldest members, launched in the early '90s in Seattle and gives its students the chance to work with some of the city's pre-eminent chefs. They serve a range of clientele, from paying customers to residents in shelters.
Perhaps most encouraging to FareStart's executive director Megan Karch is the fact that "80 percent of graduates [from the program] get and keep jobs in the food industry," she told the Washington Times.
"You can put the hardest guy in prison, who is scared to death on the inside but stone cold on the outside, in a lively and energetic kitchen," Carleton noted. "Put him in charge of producing meals for low-income kids and you just see a difference."
WATCH Related Video:
CORRECTION: Catalyst Kitchens has 20 members in its network, not 18 as mentioned in an earlier version of this story.