Op-ed: Workforce training programs offer hope amid affordability crisis

Joseph Walton cooking at the Culinary Arts Training Program.

The cost-of-living crisis is spiraling out of control. Half of New Yorkers cannot afford to meet basic needs like housing, food, transportation, and health care. As a Navy veteran experiencing unemployment and homelessness, I know these challenges first-hand.

Before the pandemic, I was getting by with work in maintenance. But in 2020, like many New Yorkers, I lost my job. I have had difficulty securing reliable and well-paying employment since, and the squeeze of inflation and rising costs have made it increasingly hard to get by. I entered ICL’s Borden Avenue Veterans Residence in Long Island City in November. I’m glad there is a shelter for those who have served our country, but my goal is to land a job and get my own place.

Fortunately, I recently enrolled in a workforce training program for people like me—New Yorkers who have encountered tough times but are tough enough to keep going. The Culinary Arts Training Program (CATP), run by the nonprofit Project Renewal, offers six months of classroom and internship training in the food service industry to low-income and unemployed adults. I’ve learned everything from knife skills to food safety in the classroom from an incredible chef instructor. And on June 12, I will begin my internship at Project FIND, an organization providing low- and moderate-income and homeless seniors with the services and support they need to enrich their lives and live independently.

My classmates come from all walks of life. Some are also veterans; others have histories of substance use or justice involvement. But everyone shares a common goal—to gain the skills and experience to launch culinary careers. After completing our internships and graduating, Project Renewal will help us find jobs. Since 1995, the program has placed over 2,000 New Yorkers in positions in the culinary field, with few barriers to entry and among the highest number of job openings in the current labor market.

When I am in my chef uniform, I have a purpose and confidence. I feel better about myself, and I have hope for the future. Programs that create career opportunities while restoring one’s dignity and sense of self are powerful antidotes to unemployment and homelessness.

In this difficult economic environment, these programs are needed more than ever. Funding workforce development programs like CATP should be a priority for the city in its new budget, to ensure New Yorkers of all backgrounds have the opportunity to thrive.

Joseph Walton is a Project Renewal Culinary Arts Training Program student living in Long Island City.