The Mountain View Day Worker Center has caught the entrepreneurial bug. Working with a group of student volunteers from Stanford University, officials from the center are planning to build a catering cooperative to serve the local community.
The brainchild of executive director Maria Marroquin, the cooperative will serve many functions.
"I believe its going to be successful in many ways," Marroquin said earlier this week, as she stood in the kitchen of the Day Worker Center, one of several local organizations that benefit from the Voice's Holiday Fund.
Marroquin said she envisioned the cooperative as a way to connect to the broader Mountain View community through its catering clients, while also providing those involved with regular work and a sense of independence.
Currently, workers at the center must wait around in the hope that someone will come ask for their help. While they wait, workers have access to English classes and courses in computer literacy, among other tutorials. Some workers help tend the center's vegetable garden, and plenty of members pitch in by cooking meals in the kitchen.
Christobal Sanchez is a Day Worker Center regular, who often volunteers to cook. He said he has always enjoyed his time in the kitchen.
A Cuban migrant to the United States, Sanchez got his first job as a cook working for the Cuban military, where he prepared meals for about 12 years, both for the army and air force in his native country.
On a recent Monday at the center, Sanchez was warming corn tortillas while tending to pots of rice, salsa and meat. While he also picks up jobs moving furniture, gardening or helping with irrigation system repairs through the center, Sanchez says cooking is his favorite. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he would gladly sign up to cook meals for the co-op, once it is up and running.
Marroquin said the day workers will run the entire catering operation -- cooking healthier versions of traditional Latino and South American food, like tamales and pupusas. The plan is to make the dishes with more vegetables, less meat, more whole grains and to use healthier oils, like olive oil, instead of lard. She also hopes to incorporate items grown in the center's garden into the recipes.
While Marroquin conceived of the project, she and her colleagues at the Day Worker Center are being helped by a small group of Stanford students, who are assisting with some research into best practices, food safety law and providing education on how to prepare traditional dishes with a healthy twist.
Ann Banchoff, director of educational programs at the Office of Community Health at Stanford's School of Medicine, is in charge of placing interns -- or, more accurately, student volunteers -- with the Day Worker Center.
According to Banchoff, the relationship with the Day Worker Center is very reciprocal. The students gain valuable experience working in the field, her office strengthens its ties with the day worker community, and the center is helped as well.
"The Day Worker Center is a wonderful resource for building economic, personal and family health, by helping the workers become economically self-sufficient and contribute to society," Banchoff told the Voice.
For Banchoff, raising awareness about healthy eating habits is an important part of the project. Though she couldn't offer statistics, she noted that poor eating habits are often more pervasive in low-income communities. Given that many who come looking for jobs at the Day Worker Center are struggling to make ends meet, she sees great potential for improving community health by teaching local day workers how to cook healthier meals.
In other words, the more people who are living healthy, productive lives, the better for a community. "That's what makes our community a healthier place, broadly speaking," she said. "We can't have a healthy community unless all members of our community are healthy."
Banchoff said that her office was being careful not to micromanage the project. The goal is to help the Day Worker Center get the catering cooperative off the ground and then to back away and help Marroquin and her colleagues with another project.
"Setting up a business is not so easy," Banchoff said. So her students are helping with that. The center has already determined that they won't be able to use their own kitchen once the catering service is up and running. However, with the help of the Stanford students, and the center's community connections, Marroquin said they have found another facility that would work.
Banchoff said that she is hopeful for what the business could do for the Day Worker Center and the broader community. "I think we need to all look at the reality of our entire community," she said. "The folks that go to the Day Worker Center are just as much a part of our community as the high tech folks."
Marroquin anticipates that the catering cooperative could be fully operational sometime in 2014, and she is optimistic about the project's prospects. After all, she said, "Everybody loves to eat."