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TAFB Takes Student from Homeless to Hopeful

By Kelly DeBrine
Volunteer Blogger, Tarrant Area Food Bank

When most people think of food banks, they think of people collecting canned and boxed goods to be distributed at food pantries. And while that’s a big part of what a food bank provides, for one Fort Worth resident, Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB) took her from homeless to hopeful through a 16-week free culinary training program.

Melyn’s Journey

Melyn Lott walks along Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth, Texas on her way to school, past a homeless community that exposes the fragility of so many. She has been living at the Union Gospel Mission after escaping an abusive relationship in October 2016. But today, life changes dramatically as she graduates from TAFB’s culinary training program and in June she will move into a new apartment. And, she already has a job lined up at the Bird Café in Sundance Square in Fort Worth.

Picture Melyn as a combination of tough knocks/streetwise attitude, a deep and emotional heart, and a woman who can laugh at herself with bubbling, melodious giggles. “I wasn’t always the best student, but I am the number one student,” Melyn said. Community Kitchen Manager Barbara Higbee added, “We test every Friday and Melyn repeatedly has the highest test scores.” Her biggest challenge during the training program had nothing to do with culinary skills. It had to do with learning how to soften her approach to getting the work done correctly while also showing respect for her fellow students. She learned early in life that kitchen politics are rough and there is no room for feelings—think “Cutthroat Kitchen.” But this program helped her learn to make room for respect and using the magic word “please.”

Melyn Lott with Barbara Higbee, manager of culinary program

“I was suspended from class for three days,” Melyn admitted with a burst of aftershock laughter. Her kitchen manners tended to sound like orders rather than teamwork, and things didn’t go well one day. During her suspension she reflected, “If one leg is broke, we’re all lame.” She returned to class with a focus on being a more supportive team member. “… I’m not a quitter … basically everything we learned in class I’m doing in my job now.”

Barbara, who everyone affectionately calls “Ms. B” says, “I have personally seen a lot of growth in Melyn.” Melyn quoted back one of Ms. B’s common phrases, “When you want to do better, you do better!” The TAFB culinary training doesn’t stop at knife sharpening techniques or how to properly chop celery without cutting your fingers. It also focuses on the soft skills needed to succeed. Ms. B says some of that education comes from former students who come back and share their experiences in the field. Melyn vows to come back too.

The entree Melyn prepared for her final exam

Melyn’s future plans? Owning her own soul food business in Fort Worth.

Melyn is working on business plans for the future. She wants to take business courses that will fuel and focus her entrepreneurial spirit. “I have so many ideas running around in my head,” she said. Start with a food truck, graduate to a restaurant of her own. “It’s gonna be all soul food, you know, fried chicken, meatloaf, roast, neck bones. I’m trying to bring that here … I think I’m better,” than the potential competition.

She wants to cook for the less fortunate too. “That could have been me,” she said as she described walking to Lancaster and seeing the homeless community. “I wanna help them some kind of way … I’ve already told my mom and my sister they’re gonna be helping me hand out plates at Lancaster on the weekends.”

As Melyn settles into her new apartment next month, she’ll be able to cook again for her children and grandchildren.  What’s on the menu? “I’m having them over for fried chicken, red beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread with bananas on the side!”

The culinary arts training program launched in 2007 and as of today will have successfully graduated 287 students. TAFB runs three classes per year. The intensive 16-week program includes three main components: culinary arts training, life skills training and production.

The production component allows students to help fight hunger by creating one-pound meals in a production style, like large batches of soups or stews that are then packaged and distributed to community food pantries. TAFB strives to create 6,000 one-pound meals a month with the aid of their students. Before graduation, students spend two weeks on an unpaid internship which often leads to a job offer. Learn more.