Photograph by Bailey Loosemore

Middle Way House clients prepare the food and work in the new Food Works store on South Washington across from Third Street Park. The program helps women victims of domestic violence gain life skills for independent living.

Food Works for Middle Way House sits opposite of the Boys and Girls Club across Third Street Park in the former Coca-Cola building. Blueberry and melon plants fill the patches of land around the recently opened kitchen. A rooftop garden with solar cells rests atop the childcare center next door.

The area exudes a sense of growth -- from the locally grown produce used in the kitchen’s recipes to the women working inside the store.

“My goal is to work with a woman and get her regular and stable hours,” said Donna Storm, the kitchen’s business and operations manager.

In 2005, Food Works was first announced as part of MWH's New Wings project, which includes a new office, transitional housing, the childcare center and the kitchen. Food Works previously operated out of two smaller kitchens at Children’s Village childcare center and the First United Methodist Church.

After two years of building restoration, MWH Executive Director Toby Strout said the Food Works Washington Street location had a soft opening in the fall of 2010 and a grand opening on Feb. 9.

The store serves as a way to provide employment opportunities to women who have sought the services at Middle Way House -- an organization that aids victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
"Only women who are comfortable come up front. One month they might be comfortable; another month they might not." - Donna Storm, Food Works manager
“Ninety-one people came opening day,” Storm said. “Of course, the next day we only had 10. We have to get more than 10.”

Halfway into the store’s hours a week later, staff member named Diane told Storm only five customers had been into Food Works so far. The smell of pizza filled the air -- a custom order to be delivered for the Head Start program -- and Diane stood at the retail counter.

Behind her, a 7-foot-tall metal rack covered with green plastic blocked customers’ views of the kitchen. To the right, a tiled wall obstructed the view from the windows.

“Only women who are comfortable come up front,” Storm said. “One month they might be comfortable; another month they might not.”

Diane first sought assistance at MWH in August 2009 after facing physical abuse from her partner. She lived in transitional housing before moving to Section 8 housing, where her ex found her.

Now, she lives above Food Works in one of four MWH apartments -- a place her ex cannot reach.

Diane said she is comfortable working in front of the store’s windows.

“I just don’t care anymore,” she said. “I’m tired of the constant looking over your shoulder. I’ve done everything I can do.”

Currently, 12 women work in the kitchen with seven on a waiting list.

Food Works offers retail goods, special event catering and a production kitchen, Storm said.

It also provides Bloomington residents who are looking to start a specialty food business room to store their produce and counter space they can rent, Storm said.
"It’s an art finding the right recipe. Sometimes it’s a hit or miss; sometimes they don’t like it, sometimes they rave about it." - Susan Dahlberg, Food Works head chef
One woman from Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard cooked squash soup, a recipe she was trying out in advance of a soup class to be taught later in the week.

Head Chef Susan Dahlberg stood at a counter behind her making rainbow cookies from a recipe given to her by a customer.

“Some lady came in wanting us to make them for her husband,” Dahlberg said. “There’s a lot of almond paste and butter in it, I’ll tell you that.”

She turned from the mixer to look at the recipe, which showed a picture of cookies in a rainbow formation at the top of the page.

As head chef, Dahlberg creates or finds all of the recipes used in Food Works.

“I look through books and come up with some of them,” she said. “It’s an art finding the right recipe. Sometimes it’s a hit or miss; sometimes they don’t like it, sometimes they rave about it.”

Dahlberg said she has cooked in every type of situation, from restaurants to a childcare center. But working at Food Works offers her a sense of variation.

“I don’t like to be bored,” she said. “In restaurants, it’s the same thing all the time. With this job, you have to use your head all the time.”

At the front counter, Diane brought out a sample for a customer to try.

Though she is willing to be seen by customers, Storm said Diane has to make sure Food Works provides the women a friendly work environment, which can get complicated when working in an industry built through a social service organization.

“My job, especially to them, is their boss,” Storm said. “The women who work with me work. If you’re a manager of any kind of business, you end up wearing every hat.”

But so far, Storm said she thinks the women are working well together. One of the bigger concerns for her is getting customers into the store.

“We have to be more aware of where we’re located,” she said. “A lot of people cut through the park. We have to change people’s traffic patterns.”

Bailey Loosemore can be reached at bloosemo@gmail.com.