The phrase ‘social enterprise’ seems to be trending lately, but what does it really mean? There are all kinds of official definitions, but I know what it means to a small group of women who are working in Winooski to change the lives of women and children in our community. Our program, simply named “FRESH Food,” is a social enterprise of the nonprofit organization Vermont Works for Women. It is a culinary training program that prepares women to work in commercial kitchens and restaurants.
We are running a business under the umbrella of a nonprofit and our success doesn’t tie to dollars, it focuses on people. With the support of our community and sales of our products we focus on our triple bottom line: training women, feeding children and sourcing locally. The women in our culinary training program produce 4,000 handmade, super nutritious, balanced meals for children between the ages of 2-5 every month and we have been doing it successfully for four years.
Every meal that we make exceeds the USDA’s requirements for a balanced plate. How do we do this? The same way parents have been doing it for ages: we hide vegetables in the proteins we serve. We add pureed kale to the Vermont-raised beef we serve on Taco Tuesday, butternut squash puree to the very veggie mac and cheese and carrot-infused ketchup as a side to our sweet potato fries.
The director at the childcare center we have been serving since we opened our doors has been a great supporter of our service. “The FRESH Food program is real, great food! Nothing is processed, vegetables are infused into the most unsuspecting places, much of the food is local and the children and parents love it.”
The children that we feed come from all income levels and diverse cultural backgrounds, but they share a meal together daily, learning proper portion sizes, how to pour milk from a carton, and the importance of ‘eating through the rainbow.’ We design our menu offerings to be as colorful and appealing as possible, engaging children to talk about vegetables they may not be exposed to at home.
How did Vermont Works for Women get in the business of feeding kids? We were apprehensive at first when this concept was designed, but feeding kids gives us a unique training opportunity. Having contracts with over a dozen childcare centers and youth groups gives us predictable production demands within which we have built a 13-week culinary training program for unemployed women. Post-program, we work with employer partners to place the women we train in foodservice jobs.
Since our launch in 2011, we have trained over 40 women, supported 17 youth and mentored more than a dozen college internships. All the while, making over 160,000 meals for children in our community. However, we could never have been as successful as we have been without the support of our community. Sales of the products we make only cover 50 percent of the income needed to support this program. We rely on philanthropic support, like the generosity of The University of Vermont Medical Center’s Community Benefit Fund, to keep our program operational.
Our work is not easy, but it is extremely rewarding. When we send a young woman off to her first job interview, hear a child tell us he wants to grow a kale beanstalk or when a farmer walks into our kitchen with a bounty of fresh grown food it fills me with pride. We are changing lives with this work, it requires taking the long view, but it works. Ashley, a recent program graduate is grateful for a second chance. “I’m a hard worker. I’m willing to learn new things. If it wasn’t for the programs and for VWW backing me up, I wouldn’t have gotten this job. I don’t think anyone would have given me the chance.”
Melissa Corbin provides oversight of FRESH Food, the hybrid model blending business operations with the social mission of training women, feeding children and sourcing food from local farmers. Prior to joining VWW in 2011, she served as a project manager in large-scale commercial construction with a focus on leadership in energy and environmental design. She enjoys growing her own food, hiking with her husband and border collie, and traveling.
The University of Vermont Medical Center’s Community Benefit Fund invests in initiatives that improve the overall health of our community and address one of the priority areas identified in UVM Medical Center’s 2013 Community Health Needs Assessment. The Community Benefit Fund is overseen by the Community Benefit Committee, which includes six UVM Medical Center employees, and six community members, and is chaired by UVM Medical Center’s Chief Medical Officer. The fund invests approximately $750,000 annually in both external and internal community benefit programs. The fund had two categories that community organizations can apply for: Community Impact Collaborative Grants and Program Grants. The Fresh Food program is a recipient of a 2014 Program Grant award.