Two months ago, Ann Pollard, a 45-year-old living in temporary housing, walked through the doors of Springboard Kitchens, in Uptown, and saw about a dozen people in the commercial kitchen working furiously to finish and serve 2,000-plus meals.
"I think I stopped breathing a little bit," she says. "I like to cook. But this is a whole different thing."
Now she's one of them, her chopping skills known to be among those to beat.
Springboard Kitchens, a nonprofit organization in its fifth year of operation, works to solve food-access issues in a unique way: It rescues the perishable food that food pantries can't take and uses it to help train some of society's most-unemployable how to cook delicious food from scratch. And it does it all by running working commercial kitchens that serve other vulnerable populations, including the seniors who are part of Allegheny County's Meals on Wheels program.
"We figured if we connected all of those pieces, we can solve a lot of problems at once," says Jennifer Flanagan, chief business and program officer.
About 50 graduates each year roll through Springboard Kitchens' six-month training curriculum. About 90 percent of those in the program are ex-offenders, re-entering society after time spent in county jail or state prisons. About 40 percent have a diagnosed mental illness. About half face a drug or alcohol addiction. About half are homeless.
It's a lot like other food-service jobs, except the chefs are a little more lenient when it comes to lines that are crossed, says one of the chefs, Tod Shoenberger, who is also CEO and president of the nonprofit.
Caseworkers also work in the kitchen to help with conflicts or personal issues that arise.
"You have a lot of very strong-willed personalities. They're driven," Shoenberger says, adding that that drive may have been misdirected in the past. "We're taking that and refocusing it."
The idea, says Flanagan, is that "if you can operate in a busy, fast-paced commercial kitchen, you can do anything."
Finishing her first week in the program on Friday, Aziza Wood, 35, overflowed with praise for it.
"Today, I helped package the Meals on Wheels," she said. "My grandmother uses Meals on Wheels. I felt productive."