Learning to Fish

In the vast assembly room at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, overlooking one of the nation’s premier food banking facilities, Drexton Granberry joyfully came to the end of his speech. He and 25 others were graduating from Chicago’s Community Kitchens (CCK), a 14-week program that teaches culinary skills to unemployed and underemployed adults. One of them was the 1,000th graduate since the program’s beginning in 1998; many of them have gone on to begin careers in the foodservice industry.

Concluding his touching speech, Drexton said, “CCK didn’t just give me a fish, they taught me how to fish.”

I have heard that phrase many times writing about global hunger and poverty. It’s an old chestnut of development practitioners. But this was the only time it brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. For I knew what the graduates had endured, not only in the class but in life. When I was writing for The Wall Street Journal, I followed one of the Chicago classes from start to finish; similar classes were also being taught at a number of food banks across the U.S. Among the students in that class were former inmates and addicts, homeless people, men and women down on their luck and looking for a way back up.

On graduation day in mid-December, the assembly room at the Food Depository, filled with friends and relatives of the students, was bursting with smiles and pride. For some students who hadn’t finished high school, this was their first real graduation day. For many of them, it was their first chance at a real career. More than three-quarters of the graduates from the previous ceremony already had landed jobs in Chicago’s vast foodservice industry.

Drexton Granberry, a 47 year-old father for four and grandfather of three, told the gathering he had worked odd jobs throughout his life, never anything that was a semblance of a career. He was in Minnesota, working in a warehouse for a potato chip company, when his mother had an accident earlier this year. He moved to Chicago to be near her, to help her get around. He couldn’t find a job. “I felt like a broken toy on Christmas Day,” he said.

Then he saw an advertisement announcing the beginning of a new CCK class. He applied and studied hard and hustled through the tasks. During the daily classes, the students helped to prepare nearly 2,000 meals each day for children in afterschool programs and for seniors. Along the way, Drexton latched on to the prospect of a cooking career. “The program gave me a can-do attitude,” he said.

Kate Maehr, the executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, dabbed at her moist eyes. Speaking earlier in the ceremony, she spoke poignantly of the 1,000 CCK graduates. “For 14 years, they have come filled with hope,” she said. “For some, hope of finding a better job. For others, hope of finding any job.” Sometime during the course, she noted, hope turns to opportunity.

It is true for both the individual and for the Food Depository. “It wasn’t good enough just to be a warehouse that moved food out into the community,” she said. “We also needed to move out of hunger and bring opportunity into the community.”

Community-based responses that work from the bottom-up are key to ending hunger and poverty at home and abroad. And long-term solutions that result in self-sufficiency, rather than short-term emergency food handouts, are vital to attacking the root of the problem and ending hunger permanently. As the keynote speaker observed, the importance of learning to fish.

The CCK graduates and the current class of students showed off their culinary chops at the lunch they prepared for their 200-or-so guests. It was a veritable feast of marinated chicken, barbecued beef medallions, vegetable rice, cubed sweet potatoes, assorted breads, holiday cookies and cupcakes and hot apple cider.

As I moved through the buffett line, I recalled the feast I had observed nearly a year earlier in the Lugulu Hills of western Kenya. Chicken, beef, beans, tomatoes, kale, a mound of corn meal and a plate of flat bread. Leonida Wanyama, a smallholder farmer, and her family were celebrating a year of bountiful harvests. Following the lead of a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, she finally had access to the essential elements of farming – better quality seeds, soil nutrients, financing to pay for it and extension advice. It was a solution that involved entire communities of farmers, a solution that aimed for a permanent end to the farmers’ hunger season. The Christmas before, following a typically meager harvest, Leonida had served only boiled bananas.

The pride and joy I saw at that home-grown Christmas feast in western Kenya I now witnessed again at the CCK graduation ceremony. The students laughed about a phrase they repeatedly heard in class as the teachers stressed the importance of a well-ordered, efficient kitchen: mise en place.

Everything in place.

It is a culinary phrase. And, in the CCK, it is also a metaphor for life.

I think it should also be a slogan for the war on hunger: Put hunger in its place. Which is to say, in the dustbin of history.