Students from the ChefsGo 1.0 program, who are ready to work in any kitchen. Since Williamsburg is the home of tourist attraction Colonial Williamsburg, the hospitality industry is a big part of what brings vitality—and jobs—to the community.

School kitchen moonlights as classroom for local college

When Williamsburg-James (Va.) City County Public Schools’ kitchen isn’t in use (weeknights, weekends, summer break) it’s the ideal workspace for a local community college’s culinary program, whose grads are helping to bolster the community’s hospitality industry.

Quite simply, allowing another organization to use an otherwise empty kitchen is “a great use of unused space after hours,” says Pam Dannon, RD, registered dietitian at Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools (WJCC).

The culinary students using the kitchen are part of ChefsGo 1.0, a workforce development program created at Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) after area chefs noticed major labor challenges: primarily finding employees with basic culinary skills.

“There’s been an increase in jobs in the hospitality industry in the greater Williamsburg region over the last couple years,” Dannon says. “It’s an economic development issue. Williamsburg chefs have a perpetual shortage of trained foodservice professionals. We’re bringing a unique resource to the table by offering our school kitchen.”

TNCC is a non-residential college that doesn’t have a teaching kitchen and is located right next to WJCC’s newly designed high school, so this partnership—now in its second year—has been making a big difference and running smoothly.

School foodservice employees are on hand in the kitchen during ChefsGo time, and so far, the district hasn’t charged the college, but pays its employees overtime for the time worked, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.  

When class is over, “the students do the cleanup,” Dannon says, adding that the college covers the cost of any chemicals or disposables they’re using. In the future as the program takes shape, the school may charge a flat fee at the beginning of the semester. And the program has the potential to be a potential money-maker for the district in some way, but that part hasn’t taken shape yet. Grants and scholarships are other avenues to look at, Dannon adds.

When the ChefsGo students graduate, they come away with a certification from the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute and are in many cases connections with local chefs who are eager to hire. High school students can also participate and get the certification, Dannon says.

“Our students can roll right out of high school with job placement in fine dining on a nationally competitive stage,” she says.

Dannon is looking to take this program further, and also to look at other ways unused school kitchen space can be used. For example, she’s dabbled with offering cold storage to local farmers in the summer, then working to can and jar produce. She encourages other foodservice directors to try it too: “There are probably a few opportunities right in your community,” she says. “Just find a way to make it work.”

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