Waltineth Banks swirls a long spoon through a commercial-sized pot of Bolognese sauce in the kitchen of InterAct, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Raleigh. Meanwhile, her interns chop onions and whip up batches of brownies.
Banks—although everyone calls her Ms. Kitty—turns 48 today. She smiles and acknowledges that she is in a good place as head chef and intern instructor at InterAct, which assists domestic abuse victims and their families. She landed the job after successfully completing the Culinary Job Training Program through Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS), a Triangle-based hunger relief organization serving seven counties.
"Not only am I doing what I want to do," Banks says, "but it's part of my dream to have my own kitchen. This is as close to mine for now."
Thirteen years ago, this wasn't the case. Banks says she was a "functioning drug addict, trying to hang on" as a single mom working two jobs to support her kids and her habit. Though smiling, she still can't avoid the tears welling in her eyes when she recalls an incident that happened many years ago: She sat at her kitchen table and ignored her children's pleas for breakfast.
"They knew mama was hung over, that she started her day with a BC [powder] and a Sunkist."
Banks says she grew up around drug addicts. She escaped her home life by marrying a military man and moving to Germany, only to divorce and raise the children on her own. "Being a daughter of an addict, you grow up with a lot of resentments," she says.
Drugs and alcohol tucked in drawers became more important than the decreasing amount of food in the cupboards and refrigerator. She fed herself with the drugs; "I didn't need to eat." Finally, there wasn't enough food for her family. She couldn't pay her electricity bills. Banks chose to send her kids to live with relatives and became homeless. After a string of abusive relationships and a dependency on drugs, in 1999 she was incarcerated for the third time on drug-related charges; the cops came to arrest her while she was at work at Golden Corral. While in jail, she learned that her daughter was pregnant.
"And I said, 'Enough.' I never wanted my grandchild to see me high."
That was in April 1999, when Banks made a commitment to stay clean. In the process of healing and rehabilitation, she discovered the Culinary Job Training Program at IFFS. She completed the 11-week program and graduated valedictorian of her class, passing the ServSafe exam and learning what was necessary to lead a kitchen on her own.
"I didn't know anything about the Food Shuttle," she says. "All I knew was that I loved to cook, and I didn't have all the skills."
Through IFFS, Banks found a way to stay clean and nourish herself while literally feeding others. The training program is targeted at under- or unemployed adults with challenges, be it addiction, at-risk lifestyles or mental disabilities. The commercial kitchen at InterAct is one of nearly 200 statewide partnerships and one of more than a dozen programs to address the root of North Carolina's hunger problem.
"The only way we can eliminate hunger is to create a sustainable way for people to feed themselves. You need food more than just in an emergency," says IFFS representative Melissa Hartzell. "Through completing the Culinary Job Training Program, you're able to feed others with food. But you're able to take home a paycheck and help stop the cycle of poverty and food insecurity."
IFFS also uses the kitchen that Banks runs for its Catering with a Cause program, which employs fresh produce from IFFS's farm and community garden and graduates of the Culinary Job Training Program.
Every week, the culinary program has access to 40,000 pounds of food, either direct from the farm or through supermarket and other donations. The program's graduate rate is 74 percent, according to IFFS figures. In 2010, 25 students completed the 11-week program. Graduates primarily work at agencies with comprehensive social programs like InterAct or at soup kitchens. Hartzell says these job placements not only create lasting partnerships but also help free up agencies' funds for other services.
North Carolina is still one of the most food-insecure states in the nation, with one of five children under age 18 considered hungry. "You want to impact somebody's life for the better," Banks says. "You wanna be like that first-grade teacher that someone remembers when they get old, you know? It's very ironic. I feel their pain, whatever they're going through."
Today, Banks prepares a weekly menu for an expected 60 people for dinner each day. She plans to whip up a batch of collard greens from the farm at IFFS combined with smoked neckbones in her "gourmet Southern" style. But there's one ingredient you can't pick out of the ground or rescue past its shelf life: "Love. That's what they're getting full of."