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Changing A Life: Training & Hiring Ex-Offenders In Restaurant Operations

Friday, September 4, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Eric Terry, President
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Five years ago, back in May of 2010, former Governor Robert McDonnell made it clear that Public Safety would be one of his top priorities. He did this by signing Executive Order Number Eleven establishing the Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-entry Council. The goal of this council was to develop a strategy or strategies for successfully training inmates with the necessary skills and certifications needed to help them stay out of the Virginia Department of Corrections system upon release.

Less than two months later, in July of 2010, the Council, along with the Virginia Department of Corrections, published the Virginia Adult Re-entry Initiative (VARI) Four Year Strategic Plan.

Callout: Since launching, more than 7,200 offenders have earned ServSafe Food Managers Certificates and more than 250 have received Foundations Certificates.

The timeline for development stresses how important it was to develop this plan and program. When the plan was published, it was estimated that roughly 4 out of every 10 offenders would recede to prison within three years of release (Pew Center, 2010), at an average annual cost to incarcerate an inmate near $30,000 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). According to VDOC, the average prison sentence in Virginia is 45 months.

Think about that for a minute; 4 out of every 10, 40 out of every 100 inmates would return to prison within three years. If even just one individual were reincarcerated within three years, the estimated cost to put him or her through the prison system would be about of $112,500.

So in 2011, after working with the National Restaurant Association and Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association Mark Engelke, Director for Foodservice with the Virginia Department of Corrections, launched a Virginia Adult Re-entry Initiative ServSafe and Foundations Component.

For those that are not familiar, both ServSave and Foundations are nationally recognized programs developed by the National Restaurant Association. The ServSafe Manager Certification is recognized as a leading food safety certification and the Foundations Certificate is a nationally recognized curriculum that incorporates culinary arts and foodservice management topics, nearly identical to the ProStart program we teach in Virginia high Schools.

Mark Engelke was quoted saying, “Offering the ServSafe course to inmates is far more cost-effective for the state than paying for incarceration. We invested $97,000 (in textbooks, certification exams and instructor resources), if we can help five offenders go out, get jobs and be productive members of society, that would pay for the initial investment.”

And he did. That initial investment helped Mark launch this foodservice VARI component in three prisons across the state. Since launching, more than 7,200 offenders have earned ServSafe Food Managers Certificates, and more than 250 have received Foundations Certificates. Currently, the Foundations curriculum is offered in 14 state prisons, and the ServSafe program in all 41 state facilities.

Virginia is fortunate to boast one of the lowest three-year recidivism (the chance an offender will return to the system) rates across the country. ServSafe and Foundations, as well as the many other certification programs found under VARI, are continuing to help lower this rate.

In August, I had the opportunity to tour one of the 14 facilitates where Foundations is taught. During my visit with Mark at the facility, I was treated to a very nice meal from a full menu with tableside service provided by offenders.

While chatting with him over lunch, he revealed to me that 27 out of 29 recent ex-offenders had received meaningful employment upon release. It became clear to me that the program was much more than a learning experience and paper certification. And while training and certifications are important, what they really do is build a sense of achievement and the confidence to excel in the workplace post-release.

The success stories Mark shared were outstanding. When presented the opportunity to hire an ex-offender who has the skills and certifications, jump at it. Better yet, go out of your way to find them. Hiring an ex-offender truly gives them an opportunity to succeed post-imprisonment and benefits their family and the community. Moreover, research shows that successfully acquiring a job post-release significantly cuts down on recidivism.

We, VHTA and VDOC, encourage all of Virginia’s restaurants to learn more about the program, find out how you can help support the initiative or hire an ex-offender leaving the corrections system. To learn more about how you can get involved in the program, please reach out to Mark Engelke. Mark can be reached via email at

This article was originally written for, and published in, the September issue of Foodservice Monthly.

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