This article was published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 24, 2022, written by Abby Mackey.
Tammy Thompson hopes to be out of a job someday. Again.
About 10 years ago, she was fired without warning. She spent time searching for another job using all of her contacts and know-how to no avail.
Her savings was gone. She cashed out her 401(k). Just to get by, she started cooking and selling meals out of her home, which exposed her to an “underground food economy” where improperly licensed and insured individuals, who happen to be great cooks, sell food to “bridge the gap between what they’re earning in their jobs and how much it costs to support their families.”
It’s risky business, literally, drawing potential negative attention from the county Health Department, IRS and others. But where others might see infractions, Thompson, who’s now the executive director of multifaceted anti-poverty organization Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, saw untapped talent.
Later this month, the first-ever Catapult Culinary cohort will finish the program with “legitimized” food businesses and a set of skills some say they never could have acquired on their own. And because of a new partnership with Allegheny Health Network, some of those skills were obtained by working in a large-scale commercial kitchen available to them 24 hours a day.
“I want to figure out how to end poverty as we know it,” Thompson said. “The only way to really do that is to change policies, change systems and make economic opportunity more accessible. I don’t want to do this work for the rest of my life. I don’t want it to be needed.”
End of the Circle
In 2014, Thompson became a consultant for Circles Greater Pittsburgh, the local leg of a national anti-poverty organization, and became the executive director in 2018. But some of its model was “unsettling” to her in that it didn’t address urban poverty, or more specifically, how poverty impacts Black communities.
“It was really important to me that we were developing programming that was really culturally competent, that was addressing the historic complexes that have kept Black families out of economic opportunities for generations,” she said.
Her team decided to pull away from the Circles model in 2020, rename it Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, and reorient the mission toward the needs of “systemically disenfranchised” populations with a focus on housing, asset building and entrepreneurship.
As the organization changed, COVID-19 changed the world, which unearthed an “upsetting” trend, especially among food business owners: “A lot of the Black entrepreneurs we work with were working but had not legitimized their businesses.”
Improper licensing doesn’t just risk legal trouble, but also it causes those business owners to forfeit access to assistance programs, which proliferated during the pandemic. With neither, there’s little chance for economic growth.
‘Just a dream’
Nicole Porterfield-Miller’s family always knew where their food came from, such as from-scratch home cooks and urban gardeners.
When she became a manager at Giant Eagle, and saw what the catering team created, she thought, “I can do that.”
In 2015, she started putting together artistically arranged fruit and veggie trays “for pure enjoyment” and a “stress reliever,” but joining the food industry full-time was just a dream until she saw a Facebook ad for Catapult Culinary.