(Matt Gregory)
Thursday, April 4, 2013 - 7:04am

Lew Spencer served in the Army for three years as a television cameraman. He never imagined that, one day, he would be preparing to enter the workforce in the culinary industry. Now, he is getting that chance thanks to a collaborative training program that teaches culinary skills to military veterans.

"This program will give me a leg up on finding employment," says Spencer, one of 10 veterans who will graduate from the three-week program on Friday.

The graduation will take place at 1 p.m. April 5 at the New York Wine & Culinary Center, 800 S. Main St., Canandaigua, N.Y. Prior to the ceremony, there will be a lunch prepared by the graduates.

The farm-to-fork program is funded by a grant from the Economic Development Agency, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The grant was given to the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS) at Rochester Institute of Technology for the Finger Lakes Food Processing Cluster Initiative. The training is a collaborative effort among numerous organizations, including the Inn on the Lake, Wegmans Food Markets, Constellation Brands, Finger Lakes Community College, the Western New York State Restaurant Association and the Veterans Outreach Center.

"This has been very exciting and rewarding for us," says Karen Loughlin, the talent sourcing and diversity manager at Wegmans. "It has been a great opportunity to partner with other organizations and to be involved in a program to help us find culinary talent, and it's even better that we can help give back to veterans."

The training includes certification in ServSafe II from the National Restaurant Association and certification in customer service from the National Retail Federation.

"I'm very grateful for this opportunity," says program graduate Mike Gibson, who served in the Army as a truck mechanic. "I plan to combine this training with my degree in business administration from SUNY Brockport to maybe one day run my own restaurant."

The training program has been well received by the veterans and the organizations involved. Andy Harlan, the program manager and assistant director for operations for CIMS, hopes a high percentage of the veterans receive job offers in the culinary industry as a direct result of the program.

"This has been the first multi-agency grant for CIMS, and it has been a huge opportunity to involve so many companies and individuals," says Harlan. "The program goes beyond just teaching skills in a high-demand field-it's about giving back to people who have served our country."

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