Friday, March 2, 2012

Catering with purpose

“You can tell I don’t sit down much,” Debra Richardson, Program Director at Leaf, Loaf & Ladle noted with a sheepish grin as she gestured toward her makeshift desk in a corner of the kitchen space. However, Richardson didn’t seem to mind the hustle and bustle; her work is a realization of her vision to revitalize lives through food.  And, she added, “My work is what I’m passionate about.” 

Leaf, Loaf & Ladle is a catering service and social enterprise of RCIL, based out of the kitchens in the Dorothy Smith Center for Advocacy in Utica. Along with Richardson, who provides the oversight and organization for the business, Chef Mike Capelli heads up the culinary aspect, filling out the two person show.  As well as regularly catering meetings, weddings and other events by request, Leaf, Loaf & Ladle also prepares and serves meals to the participants of RCIL’s Adult Day Service Program, focusing on a fresh, healthy whole foods menu. “If we’re having potatoes,” Richardson avowed, “we’re not going to open up a can.”

The origins of Leaf, Loaf & Ladle were a culmination of Richardson’s past work in food services and her commitment to reach out to her community. In 2005, Richardson said, the pieces of her life had started to come together; she had a steady job with Hotel Utica, “Everything was going right,” she recalled, “but I just wasn’t happy. I needed to get in touch with food.” That same year, Richardson heard about the Farestart program in Seattle, Washington, a catering service that served as a job training program with a focus on making and serving healthy, high quality meals. She began working with the Kitchens with Missions folks in Seattle and in 2008, everything fell into place as Richardson was able to partner with RCIL to apply the same goals in Utica. Especially with the growing demand to eat locally and prevent diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity, she said, “there’s such a need.”

The business is constantly adapting to fit the available niche and to most efficiently utilize its resources for good. For instance, previously Leaf, Loaf & Ladle has offered a work-preparedness and job training program for those joining the work force or reentering society. However, after 2008 market crash and the resulting unemployment, federal funding for job training was cut as there were so few jobs to fill nationwide. Currently, the enterprise continues to provide similar training, but for those who volunteer their time, often to fulfill court-ordered community service hours or rehabilitation requirements.

Richardson told the story of “James,” a young autistic man who volunteers twice a week at Leaf, Loaf & Ladle in order to gain work experience and independence. That week he had been in charge of portioning meat for a catered meal and peeling potatoes. “We love having him. Both of us are benefitting from the arrangement,” Richardson enthused. More generally, she noted the flexibility of the work Leaf, Loaf & Ladle offers; “There’s a place for everyone in food service.” Usually, about three volunteers fill the kitchen each day, though former volunteers are hired to help with the frequent catering events.

However, even as the mission of Leaf, Loaf & Ladle expands or alters with the uncertainties of the future, the underlying focus will stay the same. A constant theme, Richardson has noticed, is that “People can recover by giving back.” And the most rewarding aspect for both her and the volunteers is, and will continue to be the learning process and the resulting sense of accomplishment: “Knowing that the food they’re cooking is being served to 50 people right upstairs. And,” she added, “I get to be able to see people reconnect their lives through the vehicle of food.”