DAYTON, Ohio — The kitchen at Grace United Methodist Church echos with rhythmic chops as potatoes pile up, just one of the ingredients Dayton Cooks plans to use in their annual Easter meals.
The organization strives to feed the community any chance it gets. The cooks in training use primarily donated ingredients to make after-school meals or casseroles for Dayton families in need while those students themselves learn the skills they hope will ensure they and their families will never go hungry again.
Marie Moore grew up in a food-insecure household, relying on her mother to use whatever she had to feed her family.
“She was a magician in how, with the things we had available. She could just turn nothing into something grand,” she said.
Moore said her mother’s effort inspired her to start cooking herself, enrolling in Dayton Cooks in 2017 to get the formal training she needed to turn that hobby into a career.
“Feeding people is a passion,” she said.
The 10-week program offers free classes to low-income students.
Chef Thomas Johnson teaches them how to work in a professional kitchen and helps them earn their ServSafe certifications with the Ohio Department of Health.
Johnson said nearly everyone who graduates and earns their certification is able to find a job in the industry.
“When they first came to the program, half of them couldn’t boil water but to see them actually operating in the foodservice field it’s just really fulfilling,” he said.
Lucretia Davis is one of the 148 students who’ve made it through the program. She now works for the YMCA making after-school meals, but before Dayton Cooks, she said she too struggled with food insecurity.
“As a matter of fact I went to a food bank, the pantry at Wesleyan Center,” Davis said. “I was no longer working.”
That’s where she said she heard about the program. Davis said volunteers heard she had some food service experience and suggested she give Dayton Cooks a try.
Moore said she used her time at Dayton Cooks to launch her catering company. She usually cooks for parties and banquets but she said that’s taken a back seat during the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s why she’s often back in the Dayton Cooks kitchen helping to teach others and feed people in need.
“Being able to come out and volunteer and share the food resources with people, that’s been more amazing than being in business,” Moore said.
Moore said she’s looking forward to getting back in business, but she relishes any opportunity to cook for others. She said it’s what her mother taught her to do.
“How to care about other people and realize someone’s always worse off,” she said.
Johnson teaches three, 10-week classes a year and this summer he plans to launch a series of home cooking tutorials to help more locals learn to cook high-quality meals with inexpensive and easy to find ingredients.