Virtual Training at FareStart - The Second Pivot

November 12, 2020

As most supporters likely know, FareStart reoriented its business operations rapidly in March in response to the COVID-19 crisis. We ramped up our ability to address food insecurity and hunger relief efforts in our local community and in many others through our national Catalyst Kitchens network. All our businesses closed with the exception of our Community Meals Program, which took on thousands of new emergency meals for vulnerable people isolated by the pandemic – youth and adults facing hunger across the city and county.

We continue with this work in earnest, seven days a week, and are looking at ways to increase our hunger relief efforts in the future to meet the increasing need. We are partnering with other organizations with the same goal of feeding those who are facing food insecurity as we enter a deeper phase of pandemic fallout. Our community has pulled together beautifully to do this work and we are optimistic that FareStart, along with our partners, can continue to nourish communities when they need it most. We will continue to share information with you as those efforts progress.

A second and more recent pivot in our work and mission has been adapting our job training to the current environment. Forced to put our students on pause in March, we have now introduced virtual training, and the results are promising.

In the interim, we were able to support and graduate many students who were further along in their training, and since programs were paused we have made 96 job placements, both in and outside of the foodservice industry. In addition, we hired nearly two dozen graduates to assist in FareStart’s emergency meal production.

In September we welcomed back 16 of those Adult Training Program students who had been put on pause. Over the months leading up to this, FareStart’s program staff completely revamped our curriculum to be available virtually, and with broader skills training. One clear, early challenge was technology. We provided our students with laptops and ensured that they had internet access and support to know how to connect with our trainers virtually. This all depended upon their housing situations, of course, so we were aided by the work done back in March by staff making sure that all students who were on pause had transitional or permanent housing that supported their needs. For the 16 returning students, access to a kitchen was also necessary.

Our pilot of virtual training was received enthusiastically by our students. One student, when asked about learning to use the technology necessary said, “If I can do this, I can do anything.” And technology training in itself is of heightened importance now for anyone seeking employment – it is a vital part of overall employability, along with the soft skill development that is applicable in a variety of fields.

The students in the pilot accessed various types of virtual training, from Self-Empowerment with Ms. Joan, to Financial Futures, and knife skills and culinary clinics with our chef trainers. For culinary lessons, each student received a “mis en box” twice a week, a box of ingredients and tools that allows them to practice mis en place – an important culinary process in which ingredients are prepared and organized before cooking.

Rachel, who graduated in late October, says, “I was supported throughout this whole time that we were on pause. I had help financially. I had support in everything that was going on with me. So I was never alone. And then virtual training started, and it felt amazing, it felt like a sense of relief. When I received my first box with my laptop and cutting board and basic kitchen supplies, it was like, ‘okay this is really happening’. I like the idea of completing FareStart, even though it’s in a different setting. Knowing that I’ve walked it out all the way through, that I didn’t give up. I’m very, very proud.”

Our trainers themselves admit they were surprised at how effective virtual training can be. They also got valuable feedback from the students – learning that more time was needed for discussion and that they wanted more culinary training. For our next cohort of students, who started in mid-November, these things have been added, with twice as much instruction time, guest speakers from hiring companies, more time for work on resumes and cover letters, and additional time to get to know one another and build community through games and discussions in an informal, virtual setting.

With the foodservice industry having lost so many restaurant jobs due to COVID, FareStart must train students for a wider variety of jobs. We’ve built relationships with high-volume food producers, and our employment partners now include companies making frozen and ready-to-eat-meals, chain restaurants, retirement communities, and building services (hiring for cleaning and janitorial services). In a dramatically changed job landscape, FareStart’s employment team will continue to focus on where the jobs are, both in and out of foodservice.

Training and Jobs for Youth

Over the summer, we resumed our Youth Internship Program with MOD Pizza. We currently have four interns working at MOD expanding their job skills and earning wages. Next, in mid-October, we launched a virtual version of our Youth & Young Adult Barista Program in partnership with YouthCare. Nine students started their technical training, job search and job readiness classes. And third, our virtual Youth Culinary Program curriculum is under development in partnership with Seattle Public Schools’ Interagency Academy and other partner schools. We hope to launch a pilot for virtual training for our high school trainees in the new year.

Virtual training has so far proved to be popular and very effective, with high satisfaction and retention rates among our adult and youth students. With a focus on broad skills, on each individual defining their values and on self-empowerment and relationship building, we are making the most of our resources for students. We are confident that our virtual offerings and customized support for each student will prove effective as we look forward with hope for a better future for them all.