Eleven years ago, I was running a successful high-end catering company for weddings, planning to become West Virginia’s next Martha Stewart.
However, I had an eye-opening experience that made me rethink how I run my business—and how I could use my talent and success to make a greater impact by supporting a social cause. I visited a friend at a federal women’s prison and saw firsthand how so many women there suffer from substance abuse disorder, many in dire need of recovery and help to get their lives back in order.
The experience was harrowing and caused me to consider how I could use my business to support these women once they leave the prison system. I realized I could build a viable business that also helped these women recover and have a better future.
Nurturing and nourishing
The idea I came up with: provide female former inmates with agriculture and culinary training—as well as work experience—to help them with their recovery.
In 2013, my company, Fruits of Labor, launched its first eight-week training program for 10 women—teaching them how to pick vegetables, prepare lunch and nourish themselves. It was a vital learning experience because most of our students are also mothers, and through the preparation of food, they were able to reconnect with their children. It was a great bonding opportunity for the women to reintegrate with their families through a food connection.
Early on, we also teamed up with a county drug court program that serves women living in the community with additional support services. If a participant successfully completes the program, the felony is removed from their record. One of the requirements is to seek employment—and that’s where my company plays an important role.
My wedding catering company has expanded its footprint to include four cafes and one pizzeria in four communities in order to provide jobs for the women we train. We also operate a 218-acre farm where we grow vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, and flowers, and next year we will begin harvesting maple syrup and honey. The farm is also a job provider for the women we help.
Although we are a for-profit company, we are also a social enterprise with a strong social purpose—which means everything we earn goes right back into the business. Our customers realize that every time they buy a loaf of bread or hire us to cater a wedding, they are investing in our students.
The communities we serve are communities in crisis due to drug addiction. It’s something that has touched many of us. I have watched customers become champions of our employees. I heard one customer ask her waitress if she could hug her. She did – and told her “I’m so proud of you.” Fruits of Labor isn’t just a café or a pizzeria. It’s a place where community healing happens. Stigma reduction is occurring organically, and I see it unfolding every day.
Finding a place at the table
Since 2013, Fruits of Labor has enrolled over 200 students in our agriculture and culinary training programs, which range in length from eight weeks to two years. We’ve also hosted more than 1,000 off-site presentations at prisons and at-risk youth facilities, among others.
Eighty-five percent of our students complete the training successfully. Notably, 90% of the women who come to us through drug court go on to complete that programming and have the felony removed from their record. That number falls to 50% for those who don’t have an advocate like Fruits of Labor.
At the moment, 80% of our employees are current students. I have watched these women acquire transportation, rent their first home, and gain visitation rights or custody of their children.
Our push has never been to make you the next great chef. It’s about finding your launch pad, your passion, and your purpose. Find something you want to do, and we’ll help you get there. I look at our students sometimes and think: What if the world had lost you and your influence, your gifts, your talents? I love seeing people get traction in their lives and rise to places they never dreamed of.
I’m currently working with other businesses in the state, talking about our model and how to build a recovery-friendly work culture. We need to teach others that this is possible. Even if you only hire one person, you are creating an opportunity for that one person’s life to move forward. If every business would just hire one person in recovery, what a difference we could make.Print this article