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How a commissary kitchen puts compassion and love first to make a healthier St. Louis

Chavi Jackson (right) prepares food in Propel Kitchens, a commissary kitchen and career training program in Pagedale.
Provided
Chavi Jackson, right, prepares food in Propel Kitchens, a commissary kitchen and career training program in Pagedale.

Chavi Jackson had not considered a career in culinary arts prior to working at Propel Kitchens. Since she started training in the commissary kitchen in Pagedale, Jackson has gained hands-on experience in kitchen operations, support to care for her young daughter and, she said, a new “family” — something she didn’t have when she moved to St. Louis from Bland, Missouri.

Jackson moved to St. Louis in 2020 not of her own accord: After complications during pregnancy landed her in a St. Louis-area hospital, she went into labor two months early Her child’s father arrived at the hospital with her, but he later abandoned her and their baby at the NICU — leaving Jackson and her newborn unhoused in an unfamiliar city. Despite the adversity, she told St. Louis on the Air that what followed put her on a path of progress.

(Left to right) Kisha Lee, president and CEO of Propel Kitchens, and Chavi Jackson, trainee at Propel Kitchens
Miya Norfleet
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kisha Lee, president and CEO of Propel Kitchens, left, and Chavi Jackson, trainee at Propel Kitchens

“[The hospital administration] would not allow me to leave the hospital without having a place to go with my daughter. So, I went to a maternity home. I got my GED while I was there,” Jackson said. “Honestly, when I first started [working at Propel Kitchens], I just needed somewhere close to my house, so that I could support my daughter and pay for what I needed to pay for. But as I've been working there, the compassion and the understanding [is] what made me want to be a chef.”

Kisha Lee, Propel Kitchen’s executive director, said that stories like Jackson’s are why the nonprofit exists. Along with training food industry professionals, Propel Kitchens serves as a social enterprise aimed at helping its employees get on their feet after life altering — or hindering — events.

Some employees are reentering society after prison release, or just needing a fresh start.

“Most of the people that come through our doors, we are their second chance, or maybe [for] some even their last chance,” Lee said. “I wanted to make sure that I provided the support that I didn't [have] in jobs that I've had throughout my career. When [trainees and staff] are in a vulnerable place, it's important that we provide support… because I want [them] to come back to work every day.”

That support includes helping trainees navigate transportation options to arrive at work on time but being flexible when a trainee needs to stay home with a sick family member.

Even after everything she endured, Jackson said that she gets her drive to succeed from her daughter and the relationships she’s formed since she began work at Propel Kitchens.

“It's part of what helps me thrive, like what helps me move forward is the support that I get from the people at work,” she said. “I've gained a sense of self since I started this job.”

For more on Propel Kitchens’ mission and how Kisha Lee connects health and wealth to the success of St. Louis, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

How a commissary kitchen puts compassion and love first to make a healthier St. Louis

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."