Khristopher Reed had been drifting for a long time when he found his way to an unusually unique culinary program a few months ago.
His aimlessness was understandable. He says he was never the same after his best friend, Shawndel Mitchell, was murdered in 2007 in Mission Hill. Reed himself became a shooting victim a few years later, in a case of mistaken identity. He was lucky — he lost a fingertip, but his shooting wasn’t life-threatening.
“I was walking down the street with my headphones on, and a guy went running by me,” he said softly. “I guess [the shooter] thought I was with him.”
At 31, Reed has worked whatever odd jobs he could pick up. But the second time he ran across an ad for the New England Center for Arts and Technology — a job training program focused on the restaurant industry based in the South End — he took it as a sign.
“I’d always liked to cook, but never took the next step,” he said. He graduates Friday, having completed a four-month program. He’s already started working as a butcher at Eataly, the giant new Italian food emporium in the Prudential Center. He’s one of about 15 NECAT students who’ve been hired there.
The three-year-old culinary program has grown quickly, graduating 325 students. But if the $300,000 it receives in state aid is cut from the budget, as Governor Charlie Baker proposed this week, that growth could slow dramatically. That would be a blow for people like Reed.
“My whole outlook on life has changed,” he said, reflecting on the benefits of the culinary training. “I never would have thought I’d be getting up, going to school four hours a day, and to work for eight hours after that. Now I have a game plan. I have things I want to do.”
The course he’s taken is designed for people who have had trouble finding their footing in the work force. Its founders zeroed in on culinary training as an avenue to prepare workers who could quickly move into jobs, and they’ve been successful.
A large percentage of NECAT’s students are ex-offenders. People recovering from substance abuse problems are also prominently represented among its students. Roughly a quarter of them have no permanent address. It’s part culinary school, part reentry program, part treatment center.
“They come with a lot of challenges,” said Josephine Cuzzi, the executive director. “Our mantra here is that your past does not need to define your future.”
NECAT is among the programs that stands to lose state aid if $98 million in spending cuts that Baker announced this week take effect. Baker says the cuts are needed because overall state revenues are slightly below expectations. The list of programs to be trimmed includes many that Baker attempted to veto during the normal budget process earlier this year.
The program Reed is leaving isn’t in danger of closing if the budget cuts stand — state funding is only about a fifth of its budget. But the opportunities it offers will be extended to fewer people. That would be a terrible outcome.
How the cuts will play out is unclear. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has raised the possibility of restoring some of the programs Baker is axing by passing a supplemental budget. DeLeo believes the cuts are premature at best. At this point, it’s all Beacon Hill jockeying.
It’s jockeying, that is, for people who don’t need job programs, or substance abuse programs, or suicide prevention programs that stand to lose support. The cuts would be defensible if the state were actually in some sort of fiscal free fall. But it isn’t. This looks an awful lot like one of Baker’s periodic attempts to prove he’s tough on spending. But that posturing comes at a cost.
“Now I know what my purpose is, and I’m striving for it every day,” Reed says. More people deserve to have that opportunity.