Cooks at Caridad Food Bank Prep for Their Futures

David Rogers dips a stainless steel bowl into a steaming cooking tank filled with curry and carbonara, then pours the aromatic mixture into a tray of pasta.

The tray is one of dozens — roughly 750 meals — that the Caridad Community Kitchen food bank in Tucson will deliver to those in need in shelters and churches in Pima County on Thursday.

The program to feed hungry people in Pima County — in a state where more than one in four children do not have access to or cannot afford enough food — began more than 20 years ago when the Rev. Joseph Baker of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church opened a food bank. It delivered 6,800 meals every month.

“He started this with a vision of ‘We need to help those in the community,’ ” Jon Wirtis, 54, the chef and lead instructor at Caridad Community Kitchen, said. Caridad distributes about 18,000 meals monthly, he added.

But Caridad’s mission goes beyond feeding the hungry; it also trains the unemployed to prepare the food and helps them find jobs in the restaurant business. Since 2012, Caridad’s 10-week Culinary Training Program has served people like Mr. Rogers, 39, who have been troubled, down on their luck and unemployable.

It’s an opportunity for me to do something I love to do and still give back to the community.

—David Rogers

When Mr. Rogers was released from the Pima County Jail, he was recovering from drug addiction and alcoholism. He was one of the 23,000 people unemployed in Tucson, a city of 520,000.

“I had made a go in music for a while and was allowing my addiction to choose to dominate my life,” he said. After he was released, Mr. Rogers said, he participated in Alcoholics Anonymous and Caridad’s training program to turn his life around.

The training program has graduated about 91 students, and there are usually far more applicants than places. Roughly 50 people apply for each session, but only about 14 students are accepted, said Iliana Torres, the student services manager at Caridad. Training each student costs $4,000, an amount offset by catering revenue and donations.

Ms. Torres said that with such a limited number of openings, commitment was essential.

“The main thing we are looking for when we are interviewing for prospective students is that they have an earnest desire and need to work,” she said.

To be eligible for training at Caridad, candidates must be at least 18 and must provide proof of housing for the duration of the program. But Ms. Torres said that Caridad has worked with students who were experiencing homelessness at the time. The program refers applicants to local organizations that offer housing, such as the Salvation Army.

The graduation rate of the program is 63 percent, Ms. Torres, said. And those who complete the program reap the rewards: employment by local businesses and chain restaurants like Olive Garden.

Marcella Solis, 22, was unemployed and living with her fiancé and two children when she decided to enroll in Caridad’s program. For the next few months she will be working as the banquet assistant for the company’s catering arm.

There are usually at least six cooks in the kitchen, several of whom graduated from the program.

“Everyone that has been enrolled or graduates from the program has very similar backgrounds of love of food, of love of cooking, and has had obstacles to employment, whether they be legal or domestic situations or addiction situations,” Mr. Rogers said. “So knowing that we all kind of struggled creates a sense of community that is unstoppable.”

The program will be on hiatus for the first time this summer. Caridad’s kitchen, however, never sleeps. It buzzes as volunteers and employees prepare meals for the needy. For Caridad’s catering division, an apple salad and gazpacho are in the works. Preparation of food here is a process, and the workers stand by their unofficial motto, “Mise en place,” a French term for “Everything in its place.”

“To me, it’s the perfect metaphor for what happens not only in the kitchen but what happens in your life,” he said. “To me, extending that piece of wisdom to my life outside of the kitchen is really cool.”

Mr. Rogers first heard the term from Mr. Wirtis, who is known as Chef Jon to his students and the staff. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Mr. Wirtis said that there is no role more rewarding than the one he gets to play every day at the kitchen.

Mr. Wirtis described a time when he delivered food to First Church of God. He remembers that a group of clients rose as he entered the room to give him a standing ovation and to thank him for his work at Caridad.

“It’s pretty impactful when you not only see it, but hear it,” Mr. Wirtis said. “I know what goes on out there. But when you are actually in the moment and in there with them, eating your food, it’s a world apart.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 28, 2015

An earlier online version of this article misstated the number of graduates of Caridad’s Culinary Training Program. It has graduated 91 students, not 200. The article also said that Mr. Wirtis delivered food to First United Methodist Church in an anecdote. He delivered it to First Church of God.