Nehemiah Project gets tenant

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Peter Joudry (left), CEO of the Nehemiah Project, and John Seely, co-director of the Empowering Lives Foundation, discuss plans for the Wright Elementary School kitchen on Thursday.

For the past decade, the church-based Nehemiah Project has worked to establish a wholesome freshness in Lower Fairview — an area that was turning into a slum when its work began.

The Project’s latest initiative is the pending acquisition of the former Wright Elementary School, which Nehemiah plans to turn into a neighborhood culture and activity center.

Wright’s first tenant will bring a bit of rural freshness through its establishment of a “certified” community kitchen — whose clients will include farm families that will process fruits, vegetables and herbs to create “value-added” items, taking advantage of produce they can’t sell fresh, while keeping themselves occupied in late fall and winter and giving them additional economic security.

Cathie Dibert of Green“er” Acres Farm in Buttermilk Hollow near Claysburg does lots of home canning, but wants to incorporate canning and similar work into the business.

She needs a state Department of Agriculture-certified kitchen to do it.

Finding a nearby certified kitchen is “a big hurdle for any farmer who wants to sell value-added products,” Dibert said.

The nearest certified community kitchen now is in Johnstown, which is too far to be practical for her.

The kitchen at Wright will be close enough.

There, she can turn tomatoes into salsa or sauce; she can pickle cucumbers, beets, asparagus and green beans; and she can dry herbs like oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary and mint.

The proprietor of the kitchen — Nehemiah’s first tenant at Wright — is Empowering Lives Foundation, whose co-founder and co-director John Seely is a veteran of the restaurant business.

His First Frontier Kitchen at Wright will serve not only local farmers who want to create value-added products, but — in the same way — can allow others to launch culinary businesses, Seely said.

He’d like to see as many as a dozen businesses a year begin there — and strive to grow up to be the next DelGrosso Foods, Benzel’s or Sheetz, he said.

It could be the downtown equivalent of the Penn State LaunchBox or Catalyst Space, he said.

“What Catalyst Space does for high tech, we hope to do for culinary companies,” he said.

Seely also plans to use the kitchen for workforce development and life-skills family training.

The kitchen will become a workforce development tool through a culinary apprentice program for those with issues that make it hard for them to find jobs.

“Anyone with barriers to employment,” he said.

That includes people with disabilities and those with addictions, he said.

A potential source of trainees could be The Foundry, a Nehemiah Project house a few blocks away that seeks to help men with troubled pasts transition back into society.

“Those people have recovery, re-entry issues,” Seely said.

He’d like to see as many as 200 people take advantage of the apprentice program, which could lead to employment at restaurants and elsewhere in the food industry, according to a First Frontier flyer.

The kitchen will become a life-skills tool with the addition of a home-like kitchen next to the existing commercial kitchen that once served the elementary school.

At the home-like kitchen, neighborhood families will learn how to choose fresh, quality ingredients and how to prepare them so they taste good and retain their nutrients, according to Seely.

“We will teach people how to cook healthier things,” he said.

After those classes, families will go home with bags of the same ingredients they cooked with, so they can duplicate the meals they learned to make at home, said Peter Joudry, CEO of Nehemiah.

Seely would like to see as many as 500 people take advantage of the life-skills program.

The kitchen could also feed up to 600 students a day through the school lunch program, according to the flyer.

Dibert, the farmer, expects to sell her value-added products online, along with the fresh products she already sells by that means.

She also plans to place the value-added products in “little mom and pop” places like Me-Maws Sweets and Treats in Claysburg, she said.

Those kinds of stores like to have home-grown items available, she said.

It’s possible to create a certified kitchen on one’s own property, but it can be difficult, according to Beth Futrick, an ombudsman with the Blair County Conservation District.

It requires that the kitchen be closed off from the rest of the house, requires separate storage and prohibits the use of products also used in the home, according to Futrick and the Penn State Extension website.

Local farmers are pleased with Seely’s plan, Futrick said.

At a recent meeting, one farmer who had unsold green tomatoes said they were just food for her hog, according to Futrick.

If a certified kitchen were available, she could turn those tomatoes into jelly and sell it for $5 a jar, she said.

Dibert used to sell her farm products at farmers markets, but farmers markets can be “fragile,” given the work required to pack the goods to be sold, transport them to market, then transport unsold goods back home, Futrick said.

Seely is seeking to raise $75,000 to $100,000 to cover six to nine months of operating costs, equipment purchases and match money for grants, “until cash revenue-generating operations can support” the kitchen, according to the flyer.

A major benefit of Seely’s plan is its focus on wholesome, locally grown food, according to Futrick.

“We’re losing that in our culture,” she said. “It’s easier to take something in a package and stick it in the microwave.”

Nehemiah considers Empowering Lives to be a “flagship” tenant, Joudry said.

Its mission aligns with Nehemiah’s overall mission to nourish the neighborhood, body and soul, according to Joudry.

“It’s just all good,” Futrick said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

A CLOSER LOOK

The Nehemiah Project will take possession of the former Wright Elementary School from the Altoona Area School District on March 28, according to CEO Peter Joudry. Nehemiah is paying the district $140,000.

Empowering Lives Foundation will set up its First Frontier (community) Kitchen there within a month. Budding culinary entrepreneurs can rent the kitchen to make value-added products. Foundation Co-Director John Seely will use it for a culinary apprentice program for people struggling to find jobs and for family life-skills culinary training.

Because Nehemiah doesn’t own the school yet, there is only an agreement in principle with Seely currently, Joudry said.

Nehemiah also has an agreement in principle with Great Commission School to use the gym at the building for basketball games from November through February, according to Joudry.

Other organizations are interested in using the place, but haven’t made firm agreements with Nehemiah yet, he said. Those include churches hoping to use the auditorium for services.

There is about 60,000 square feet of non-common area in the building, Joudry said.

Starting leases will be for three years, he said.

Empowering Lives will have a five-year lease.

“We want to minister to and provide service to the community,” Joudry said.

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