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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Making food, rebuilding lives
Porchlight Products gives gourmet jobs to people in need
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Greg Nance at work: 'This has made me a better person.'
Greg Nance at work: 'This has made me a better person.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

On a hot summer morning Greg Nance chops beets, celery, potatoes, red onions and scallions - much of it grown in local farm fields - in the commercial kitchen at Porchlight Inc.

Nance, 53, is marking an important anniversary: two years of sobriety. It's among recent milestones for Nance, a Porchlight client and employee. He works in the group's kitchen, at 306 N. Brooks St., which last year launched a first-of-its-kind program to produce a line of gourmet foods.

"I'm never going to leave this job," says Nance, a Chicago native who has made Madison his home for nearly 30 years. "They had faith in me when this started, and now this has made me a better person."

Nance, the first employee of Porchlight Products, spent last year making beet salad and potato salad served at Madison's Old Fashioned restaurant. The program now has a kitchen crew of about nine part-time employees and has expanded to its menu reach into the consumer market.

Porchlight is a Madison nonprofit agency that offers a variety of programs to people who are homeless, mentally ill and/or have problems with substance abuse. Its programs include emergency shelter, food, employment services, counseling and housing.

The Porchlight Products program was created as a way to use the commercial kitchen at the agency's home of four years, formerly the old YWCA building between University Avenue and West Johnson Street. It serves a dual function: generating income while providing job skills.

"We wanted to use this kitchen with residents and clients we serve, to try to do some enterprise that would be able to generate cash flow and revenue not only to sustain the program but others we operate at Porchlight," says Steve Schooler, the group's executive director.

With support from the Madison Community Foundation and others, Schooler contracted with Nancy Christy and Andrea Craig. The pair became known for employing disabled people at their two former restaurants, the Wilson Street Grill and Kennedy Manor Dining Room.

Now consulting partners, Christy and Craig put together a "three-legged stool" concept tested at Porchlight. The idea is to hire homeless, mentally ill and disabled people to make high-end, artisan food products for restaurants using locally sourced produce.

(The pair are using the same concept in projects they're working on with Madison's Catholic Multicultural Center and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and Morgridge Institute for Research. For more, see Christy's website, "Meaningful People, Places and Foods," www.nancy-christy.com/3LeggedStool.html.)

"Our hope at Porchlight was to do a pilot," says Craig. "This is new territory."

Craig and Christy envisioned changing the homeless stereotype by having the agency's clients interact with the community at large.

"We had the idea of having this kind of integrated workforce helping family farms by buying produce and using it, then linking this to the restaurant community," says Christy. "It's a very complex project where everyone had something to gain."

They took the concept to their contacts in the restaurant world, who were very interested in the idea. Restaurateurs were receptive, explains Christy, because they knew the pair understand the quality requirements and economics of the restaurant business.

The Old Fashioned and Washington Island's Washington Hotel signed on right away. So, eventually, did several other eateries and food retailers, including Lombardino's, RP's Pasta and Madison's Washington Hotel Coffee Room. (See list for other vendors.)

The Washington Hotel sells rhubarb ginger jam produced by Porchlight Products. Leah Caplan, who runs the hotel and restaurant with a focus on serving sustainable products, says using Porchlight made sense to her. Local rhubarb comes into season on the island during the hotel and restaurant's peak seasons, plus the business employs a staff that largely works only during the summer, leaving little time to put up preserves.

"I liked the program, and this seemed like a good product to get out of our production," says Caplan. "I know the farmers they're contracting with and respect their growing practices."

The rhubarb in the Washington Hotel jam is grown by a number of farms near Viola, including Keewaydin Farms, run by Rufus Haucke and his siblings Jessica and Jacob. Haucke says Keewaydin has provided hundreds of pounds of rhubarb to Porchlight in addition to cabbage, dill and beans.

"I love the project," says Haucke of the initiative. "It's great to be a part of it and have our name on their great little jars."

Peter Robertson of RP's Pasta and Madison's Fork & Spoon Café has been selling Porchlight's maple shortbread cookies and brownies at his restaurant for two months. He says they're big sellers for people who want a grab-and-go dessert.

"We used disabled people in our production, and Porchlight has set up a program where they're giving opportunities," Robertson says. "That was the big reason for our wanting to sell their products."

Initially, the program used proprietary recipes provided by restaurant clients; it since has developed its own line of goods to sell directly to consumers and, eventually, through retail venues. The brownies, maple shortbread and honey shortbread cookies, as well as a number of jams and jellies, pocket pies, tomato pasta sauce, dilled beans and a spicy vegetable relish called curtido, are on a growing list of items available on Porchlight's website.

Jennifer Martell, the manager of Porchlight's kitchen program, is working to develop additional products and sales outlets. "I felt we needed to have as much control over the program as we could," she says of her decision to branch into retail. "My goal is to increase sales of these products so I can give people jobs."

Schooler says sales are modest - $10,000 since the program was launched last year - but growing. Just as important, it's helping Porchlight clients through a transition in life.

Nance recently completed the agency's Partnership for Transitional Opportunities program, which provides housing and case management for homeless adults with a history of substance abuse, and is planning to leave Porchlight as a resident to move into his own apartment.

But Nance is keeping his job. He says of his work: "I feel like I can conquer anything now."

Where to get Porchlight Products

RP's Pasta and the Fork & Spoon Café

1133 E. Wilson St., Madison

Monty's Blue Plate Diner

2089 Atwood Ave., Madison

Fraboni's Italian Specialties

108 Owen Rd., Monona

Washington Hotel Coffee Room

402 W. Lakeside St., Madison

Also online at www.porchlightinc.org/porch_products.html

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