San Diego’s Kitchens for Good helped Veronica Mack transition from the streets to a cookie company management job
Life is sweet in many ways these days for Veronica Mack.
The Linda Vista resident recently started a new job at a cookie company in San Diego and she got promoted to assistant manager after just two months. But even sweeter is the pride she feels over how much she has overcome to get there. Four years ago, Mack couldn’t find a job and had struggled in previous years with drug abuse and prison.
Then she was accepted as an apprentice in the culinary arts program at Kitchens for Good, a San Diego social enterprise nonprofit that celebrated its fifth anniversary on Wednesday. The 20-month, free-tuition apprenticeship program provides job and life skills training, work experience and job placement services to adults like Mack who are underemployed because of incarceration, drug, alcohol and domestic abuse problems, homelessness and lack of education, among other issues.
Since Kitchens for Good’s Project Launch apprenticeship program began in the Chollas View area of San Diego in 2015, more than 300 people have graduated. Eighty-five percent of graduates have been placed in jobs, and 81 percent of employed graduates have received wage increases and promotions within their first 18 months on the job.
Mack was one of the first graduates of Project Launch and her rise to success was celebrated during the fifth-anniversary party, which was held over Zoom on Wednesday evening for an audience of donors and board members. During the hourlong program, Mack was featured preparing a recipe live for viewers while she talked about her journey.
“I made a lot of bad choices in my life at times and I didn’t know what to do. People wouldn’t hire me,” Mack said during the livecast. “Then I walked into Kitchens for Good. I didn’t want to go to school. I wanted a job where I could pay my bills. But I gave them a try and here I am. Not only will they give you a job, it’s a lifelong relationship.”
After completing her initial training in Project Launch, Mack got a job as a cook with Volunteers for America, where she was promoted to assistant manager after one year. She got laid off last spring when the pandemic hit, but Kitchens for Good helped her find another job this summer at Maya’s Cookies, a local bakery that ships its all-vegan products nationwide.
“Kitchens for Good did change my life,” Mack said Thursday morning. “They changed it because of the training, because of the contacts and just the way their door is always open. They believe in you and encourage you to go for more. They always gave me that little extra push.”
Maya Madsen, who started her cookie business five years ago, said she knew within two weeks of hiring Mack that she wanted to promote her. She said Mack had the depth of culinary training that filled in the gaps in her own background as an entrepreneur.
“Veronica is excellent. She has even taught me a few things,” Madsen said. “When we hired her, she really brought it when she came. She has the work ethic and the eye for perfectionism, as I do.”
Mack’s experience is similar to that of Soni Shine, a 2019 Project Launch graduate who is now a chef instructor for Kitchens for Good.
Ten years ago, Shine was homeless, addicted to meth and committing crimes to survive. While serving a four-year sentence for stealing food from a grocery store, she was offered the choice of work release or school. She picked Kitchens for Good. Last year, Shine had saved enough money from working in the culinary field that she was able to buy her first home.
Kitchen for Good was co-founded in 2014 by Chuck Samuelson and Aviva Paley. Samuelson was a career chef who quit his management job at Stone Brewing in 2013 to serve the community in what he called a “right livelihood.” He left Kitchens for Good earlier this year to become an at-large consultant for other local nonprofits. Paley, who is Kitchens for Good’s senior director, came from a background of work in the culinary, food justice and conservation fields.
During Wednesday’s livecast, Paley called the last five years an “amazing” journey.
“The apprentices are at the heart of what we do. But behind every single meal is the story of transformation and a new beginning,” she said.
Paley said that over the past five years, apprentices have prepared more than 500,000 meals, much of it with the more than 230,000 pounds of surplus and cosmetically imperfect produce its apprentices have collected and “upcycled” into meals.
Although the pandemic’s arrival has been traumatic for the culinary industry, Kitchens for Good CEO Jennifer Gilmore said Wednesday that it provided the organization’s leadership with a much-needed “pause” to re-evaluate its mission and future at the five-year mark.
Before the pandemic, Kitchens for Good had supported its programs, in part, through special events catering services at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, where its classrooms and teaching kitchens have been located since 2015. When that business evaporated overnight in March, the organization quickly pivoted and — with the support of several grants — began preparing fresh packaged meals for the homeless, needy seniors and at-risk children. Since March, it has served more than 200,000 meals to the hungry, Gilmore said.
In August, the organization announced it will relocate this winter from the Jacobs Center to larger facilities at the new workforce training center and commercial kitchen at the Salvation Army’s Door of Hope campus in Kearny Mesa. The move will allow Kitchens for Good to expand Project Launch and its hunger relief meals program. Besides the original culinary apprenticeship program, the organization has also recently launched apprenticeships in bakery skills and food service management.
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