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Stirring the Pot

How boxed lunches are helping inner-city women find financial independence.

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Starting this week, the untapped power of lunchtime hunger pangs may hold the answer to questions like whether a spicy Thai wrap can serve a mission, or whether a dozen determined women can reinvent themselves and find financial independence through skills as age-old as cooking.

Theirs is the newest example of cause marketing in Richmond; the vehicle is a program called Breadwinners, based in the Berryman Center and the Centenary United Methodist Church kitchens downtown. Customers who like the idea of helping others while feeding themselves can order breakfast or dessert trays, gourmet sandwiches and salads — even empanadas and tamales made by a young woman from Guatemala whose sightlessness doesn't hinder her desire or ability to cook.

Food is ordered ahead for next-day delivery to customers in most parts of the city. The proceeds go to the nonprofit New Visions, New Ventures, an economic resource center that teaches entrepreneurial and business-management skills to women who want to lift themselves out of poverty or find new ways to provide financial stability.

Women in Breadwinners bake pastries, prepare soul and comfort foods, and a worldly range of dishes that reflect their backgrounds, like Mila's delicate, fruit-shaped Bulgarian cookies or April's pumpkin cakes. Many use family recipes they learned to make as children.

What they didn't learn then, but what's required of commercial cooks now, is the regimen of nutritional labeling, kitchen protocol, budget management and other skills that keep a food business running. Professional chefs led by Ellie Basch share their expertise in a training program that emphasizes service, presentation and taste. Participants say their interaction with expert mentors gives them momentum toward personal goals, particularly prosperity and self-confidence.

"These are people with great ideas and energy," says Jennifer Pierce, director of program development for New Visions, New Ventures. "A number of them had a specialty product they wanted to take to market, but because food is so regulated, there are systemic barriers. Breadwinners is our solution — we help them make it marketable and ready for distribution."

Some in the program have never held a checking account or learned to manage money. "We talk about false expectations and the myths and realities of owning a business," Pierce says. "In many cases, we encourage them to consider part-time ventures to supplement their incomes. Our focus is on entrepreneurship and financial literacy." The nonprofit offers access to capital loans and teaches people how to budget, repair bad credit, build savings accounts and make investments.

Or, in this case, how to parlay dough into dough. Breadwinners starts its catering delivery service Jan. 17 and has the potential to build into a retail or branding venture, with offshoots in food-product sales for some of the cooks-in-training.

"Food just brings everyone together in a lot of respects," says Denise Wilson, a natural-foods cook in the program. "This little group is getting along famously, and we all have a common goal of getting our recipe from home to market. Plus we get to eat beautiful food and share it with others." S

The Web site www.nvnv.org has details on Breadwinners catering and its other programs.

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