Catholic Charities Pairs Farming and Restaurant Programs to Help Refugees Adapt to Life in Louisville

Adjusting to new surroundings is not easy for anyone, and refugees coming to Louisville from countries ranging from Bosnia to Somalia to the Dominican Republic experience many challenges.

Thankfully, Louisville’s Catholic Charities has been helping refugees adapt to America for decades, and it’s not surprising that one of its most popular programs involves farming and food.

Many of the refugees that come to Louisville have agriculture skills fromtheir native countries, and Catholic Charities’ Common Earth Gardens program  provides land on which those inthe program grow crops and sell them in the marketplace, in additiontoproviding food for other Catholic Charities program, the Common Table.

“From those countries, so many were farmers before they came here,” says Laura Stevens, who directs the refugee program. “If you can imagine, being forced to leave your home country, you’re used to waking up and working with the soil. Then you’re re-settled here in an apartment, have no access to any green space or dirt. We help connect them with space to grow food.”

There are 11 area community gardens, many of which are located adjacent to current and former parishes of the church. Stevens says participants grow peppers, corn, tomatoes, kale, and greens, then learn in a three-year program how to market their goods and become self-supporting.

Stevens says the program has served more than 500 people over the past 11 years. And it has a close relationship with another program – Common Table – that gives refugees and West End residents an opportunity to gain skills to enter the culinary work force.

Chef Hank Levitt is in charge of Common Table, which offers eight-week courses in which individuals can gain certifications that make them immediately employable at any food-service provider.

He says the program’s graduates are working at local restaurants and many other spots, including Brown-Forman and the Omni Hotel.

A second-generation baker who once worked at the Seelbach Hilton, Levitt says he enjoys teaching important skills in the kitchen and seeing graduates go on to successful careers.

Meanwhile, interacting with refugees has another benefit: “I’ve taken my love for international food and incorporated into the program,” he says.

If you come in on Tuesday or Thursday, you can order lunch in the Common Table kitchen on the St. Anthony campus at 22nd and Market. Students study all facets of the food business, and also learn about time management, resume writing, and job placement.

They earn a certificate from the program and certification from ServSafe, which allows them to work in any restaurant. They learn about proper knife skills, food handling, cooking temperatures, and how to maintain safety.

“Common Table was set up to give employable job skills to newly arrived refugees,” said Levitt, who has seen 75 individuals gain the certifications in three years. “As things have changed, the focus has changed to all the people in Louisville who need job skills. They are under-employed or unemployed. Louisville is a great food town, with all the great restaurants, plus hospitals, hotels.  The mission is to teach students the skills they need to walk into a restaurant and get a job.”

In order to maintain the program and give students projects to work on, Common Table offers catering services. Levitt says his students prepare lots of box lunches as well as hot lunches and buffet lines. Students pay no tuition, and as the catering business revenue sustains the program.

Once a month, a free meal is provided to local residents, featuring good food such as meat loaf, salad, vegetables, and dessert. Levitt says that he usually sees about 50 people come for the last-Wednesday-of-the-month meal.

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