When Hurricane Ida flooded the Union County Meals on Wheels kitchen on Sept. 1, the operation to feed 1,000 homebound people a day ground to a halt.
Thanks to a culinary training program stepping in to help, Meals on Wheels was delivering again a week later at a time of critical need.
The culinary Jobs Plus program run by the Housing Authority of the City of Elizabeth will hold a graduation event this month, and its participants have much to be proud of. More than 35,000 meals have been delivered to Union County residents since September. Prior to assisting Meals on Wheels, the five program participants were preparing 100 meals a day for seniors in Elizabeth.
“It’s been incredible,” said Chef Ameer Natson, who leads the program. “I think that the nine weeks of us preparing those 100 meals a day made them ready in here to be able to come in and ramp up.”
Natson is known for feeding celebrity clients and has appeared on Food Network. He said participants in his program have learned everything from planning menus to developing flavors and plating food.
For participants Stephon Bell and Terrell Hammons, training under a successful chef while being paid to help feed those with limited resources has been a worthwhile experience. Bell and Hammons are members of the Community Access Unlimited Transitional Opportunities Program, which provides residential services and supports to youth aging out of the foster care system and other youth at risk. CAU was also instrumental in applying for the federal grant funding for the culinary training and feeding program.
“I come from a background of having my imagination limited from the system…Chef brings that imagination back out and its wonderful,” Hammons said. “It’s so nice to feel like you’re helping somebody and honing your skills while you do it.”
Bell said he hopes to continue working with Chef Ameer in catering.
“It’s really a blessing because most people have to pay for something like this and we’re getting it free,” he said. “Some people have to pay to go to culinary arts school and we learned more than they learn in 12 weeks.”