Aug 29, 2013
03:22 PM
Connecticut Today

New Farm-to-Table Café at Hartford Public Library Is Also a Jobs Initiative

New Farm-to-Table Café at Hartford Public Library Is Also a Jobs Initiative

Lindsay Vigue Photography (www.lindsayviguephotography.zenfolio.com)

From left, Thea Montanez, Chair of the Hartford Public Library Board; Matt Poland, CEO, Hartford Public Library; Gov. Dannel P. Malloy; Cary Wheaton, Executive Director, Billings Forge Community Works; Mayor Segarra; Nancy Wheeler, Vice President, Investor Relations, MetroHartford Alliance; Catherine Smith, Commissioner DECD.

At a debut event Wednesday for Kitchen at Hartford Public Library, a new farm-to-table café, the invited guests were naturally encouraged to enjoy some breakfast—mini cheddar-and-bacon quiches, homemade cinnamon scones and mini muffins, Omar Coffee Company brews, Harney & Sons teas and more.

The food was good, and so is the advent of another daytime fine dining option in downtown Hartford, one that’s not just for library patrons. But also in the air at the event were the larger positive things that Kitchen represents—big-picture considerations for Hartford, and for the state in general.

Kitchen may be a dining venture on the surface—see our related dining story on the new café—but in a more profound and impactful way it represents a creative answer to challenges faced by Connecticut’s urban centers, and a response to the dismal jobs picture in forlorn pockets of our largest cities.

Besides being a café with nice food, Kitchen is a nonprofit partnership between a library known for its civic engagement and role as a jobs resource center and Billings Forge Community Works, and as such it “pairs farm-to-table job training with permanent job placement services,” as the release announcing Kitchen explained it.

Billings Forge Community Works is “a driving force in community participation and empowerment in Hartford,” and now, together with the library, it has upped the ante on its already impressive track record by creating a “one-stop-shop for job training and permanent job placement for those who work in Hartford.”

The “tasty” results of the partnership are so palpably innovative that Gov. Dannel Malloy said simply at one point in Wednesday’s event, “You have to take pride” in the accomplishment.

“Libraries are unbelievable transitional organizations,” the governor went on to say, by way of praising the ongoing evolution shepherded by library CEO Matt Poland and his staff—and before stressing that the capital city’s library already “functions as a job center, and [through Kitchen] now has onsite job training with the goal of offering good paying jobs with good benefits in a great community.”

Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, framed the energizing appeal of this particular initiative when she said, “Economic development in Connecticut comes in all sizes and shapes, [Kitchen] is the most delicious of all sizes and shapes.”

If the new farm-to-table fare was one star of Wednesday’s debut event, and the dignitaries joined Poland as others, the sun was Cary Wheaton, executive director of Billings Forge Community Works.

Wheaton oversees an operation that includes the inspiration for the library’s new café, Kitchen at Billings Forge, which offers a farm-to-table café of its own, catering, cooking classes and more—along with a farmers’ market, a community garden and “edible classroom,” a performance, events, class and community space and youth programs.

 

All this takes place, quite purposefully, in the challenged Frog Hollow neighborhood of Hartford. (Notably, the “mission-driven partners” of Wheaton’s organization include the acclaimed restaurant Firebox, located at Billings Forge, and the Apartments at Billings Forge, a mixed income housing complex.)

Frog Hollow is the host neighborhood because it is pocket of great need, and where the biggest difference can be made. On its website, Billings Forge Community Works explains that by saying, in part, “Hartford is the poorest city in one of the wealthiest states in the country. The median household income in Connecticut is $65,521; in Hartford it is $27,051, and in Frog Hollow, $17,333.”

More than 79 percent of children in Frog Hollow live in single parent households, the site says, 90 percent of which are headed by single mothers. The child poverty rate in Frog Hollow is 57.5 percent—higher than Hartford’s, which, at 41.3 percent overall, is not only the highest in Connecticut but said to be the second highest in the country for cities of 100,000, exceeded only by Brownsville, Tex.

And at 16 percent, Frog Hollow has the highest unemployment rate in a state where the overall rate was half of that, 8.1 percent in July.

With Wheaton helping to combat the problems by leading a series of innovative and integrated programs centered on the type of empowering ethos that underlies something like farm-to-table cuisine, it’s no wonder that she got the loudest and most sustained applause when she stepped up to the podium to speak Wednesday—and no wonder that the spinoff Kitchen at Hartford Public Library is occasioning such a buzz.

“Providing hands-on job training and assisting city residents with securing permanent employment opportunities are critical to improving the quality of life for those who live in Hartford,” Poland and Wheaton said jointly in remarks on an event handout. “With Kitchen at Hartford Public Library we are also able to offer the community an opportunity to eat well while doing good and show support for those who are gaining valuable skills and work experience through our programs.”

“Bringing Billings Forge Community Works job training program under the same roof as the library’s CT Works @HPL initiative, a partnership with Capital Workforce Partners, was a natural way to offer Hartford residents increased access to job training, placement opportunities, skill development programming and other library resources,” Poland said. “We are delighted to launch this partnership by opening Kitchen at Hartford Public Library and look forward to growing our collaboration for the benefit of our customers.”

“This is an incredible moment,” Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said at Wednesday’s event, calling it an example of seizing “one opportunity at a time to make our city a much greater place.”

 

In his remarks, the mayor recalled that when he first came to Hartford, the library was one of his “safehouses,” and said, “I walked into those doors when I was 15.” Then he added, more seriously than joking, “I want all of you to come here as much as possible.”

Perhaps the most powerful speaker was also the quietest and one of the briefest, Shavonne Dawson (shown here), a previous job trainee and current employee of the Kitchen at the Hartford Public Library. Her heartfelt gratitude touched everyone in the crowd, just as her wide smile was infectious, but the best thing—something she shared with the rest of her work crew that morning—was her palpable sense of pride in having one of those good jobs in a good place the governor talked about.

Food, and fine food, drives entire economies. It can define someone’s social status, and it can bring the type of comfort and fulfillment that are hard to quantify but not to feel. In creating Kitchen at Hartford Public Library, all involved seem to have come up with one of those recipes that results in something so sustaining it becomes far more than the sum of its ingredients.

While Wheaton said, “We are excited to add a second job training facility, by opening Kitchen at Hartford Public Library and helping more city residents gain access to the work skills necessary to secure permanent employment,” others who encounter Kitchen—at its most obvious and accessible level, by enjoying the food—will credit the initiative in a different way.

Those overlapping aspects are what raised the energy in the soaring, glass-walled atrium space above the normal cheerleading level at a politically-tinged, quasi-government event. This one didn’t need embellishment; the truth was better than any hype a message handler could come up with.

The partnership between Billings Forge Community Works and Hartford Public Library, the handouts explained, aligns with Mayor Segarra’s Opportunities Hartford program, which seeks to weave together what the community does well to minimize the city’s social deficits with an emphasis on income, education and employment.

Supporters of the partnership between Billings Forge Community Works and the Hartford Public Library, include the City of Hartford, CT Department of Economic and Community Development—$ 100,000  of state money went into creating Kitchen—Capital Community College, CT Works, Bank of America and The Melville Charitable Trust. The latter trust founded and is the leading supporter of Billings Forge Community Works.

Bank of America’s support, the press materials said, has been instrumental to the growth of Billings Forge Community Works, in particular through its 2012 Neighborhood Builder Program, and the bank is a supporter of CT Works at Hartford Public Library.

Kitchen at Hartford Public Library serves breakfast, lunch and pastries made from locally grown and sourced ingredients, and is open Monday through Friday from 8a.m. to 4p.m. Its host, the library, traces its roots to 1774, and in addition to the main facility at 500 Main St., it operates 10 locations in the city, and logs more than 865,000 visits per year.

After all of that, if you’re still not favorably impressed, consider two parting thoughts:

Eighty-four percent Billings Forge Community Works’ training program enrollees have successfully completed the program. Of those, 69 percent were successfully placed in jobs at the end of training and another 12 percent decided to pursue higher education.

And the library, the place where executives will be able to enjoy fine wines and farm-to-table cuisine in catered private events—it’s also the responsive community and jobs resource that ranks number one in the nation for per capita computer and Internet access (based on a survey of 166 libraries in cities with a population of 65,000 or more).

It’s called making a difference, and in the case of Kitchen at Hartford Public Library, it’s making a difference in the most delicious way possible.

To learn more about the library, see the website at www.hplct.org.

 

New Farm-to-Table Café at Hartford Public Library Is Also a Jobs Initiative

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