“Neither food nor people should ever go to waste.”
This is the mantra at LA Kitchen, a nonprofit in northeast Los Angeles that’s committed to using the power of food to help give people a second chance.
When you first hear about LA Kitchen you might assume it’s a typical soup kitchen type charity. But you’d be wrong. LA Kitchen goes far beyond feeding the hungry–it gives people a new lease on life.
The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This proverb couldn’t ring any truer than within the boisterous walls of LA Kitchen.
CEO and president, Robert Egger, began LA Kitchen’s mission in the 1980s in Washington DC. He was volunteering there, serving the homeless on the streets night after night with food bought at the grocery store. That’s when he had the initial idea for a way in which organizations could donate food instead, that would then also be used for a cooking school to train people for work. “I thought it was a great idea,” he says, “but every charity that I went to said ‘Oh, that won’t work.'”
So what did he do? He started the nonprofit himself by creating DC Central Kitchen.
After 24 successful years at the helm of DC Central Kitchen, Egger was eager to spread his pioneering ideas elsewhere, and headed out west. In 2013, LA Kitchen was born.
DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen are part of an “on-going experiment of how to use food not just to feed someone, but to liberate somebody from the economic situation that makes them hungry in the first place,” says Egger.
To push this power of food to its limits, Egger and his team have developed three core programs within LA Kitchen: Empower, Impact, and Strong Food.
Empower is a 14-week-long culinary crash course for classes of approximately 22 students, who have each either been formerly incarcerated, homeless, or have aged out of the foster care system. The students learn about nutrition, culinary principles, and life skills while receiving ongoing counseling sessions. At the end of the course, graduates from the program join the workforce either as L.A. Kitchen employees or as cooks at some of L.A.’s best restaurants.
Impact ensures that instead of going to waste, imperfect and excess food feeds LA’s hungriest communities. Volunteers team up with participants in the Empower program to prepare food donated to LA Kitchen from charitable organizations they partner with. In 2017 LA Kitchen launched a new initiative through Impact called Super Senior Sites to help provide food and support to LA’s elderly communities.
These three programs make LA Kitchen an incredibly effective force in the fight against hunger and food waste, and come together to form a strong, supportive community. The influence LA Kitchen has had on the students within the Empower program is particularly stellar.
Darnell Hopper Jr. is one such student, who was a member of LA Kitchen’s 14th Empower class this past spring. Before LA Kitchen, Hopper Jr. had fallen on some tough times and wound up in prison. Empower was offered to him as a part of an early release program, and it immediately piqued his interest. “I liked the fact that they take food that’s going to be wasted and give it a new purpose,” he says of his initial reaction.
LA Kitchen has given Hopper Jr. new hope. Before enrolling in Empower, “I was kind of closed-minded about where my future was going,” he admits. “[LA Kitchen] has opened up my eyes to a different view of the world– food-wise, eating wise, like healthier stuff. And I really like the charity part.” He’s loved the LA Kitchen community so much in fact, that he hopes to work for them after he graduates and completes his internship. “It blows my mind,” he says. “I’ve only been here such a short amount of time and it’s really tight-knit.”
Theresa Farthing, who is lovingly called Chef T, was a member of the inaugural Empower class and remains a beacon of success at LA Kitchen. She now works there as the Community Outreach Specialist, traveling to senior centers and after school programs to give demos on healthy cooking.
“LA Kitchen is a second chance program,” Farthing says. “The biggest thing I learned in the Empower program is being responsible for myself.” She says after graduating she felt amazing. “I felt that I could actually take control of my life.”
Now, Farthing recognizes her former self in the new students who go through the Empower program, and sees the same positive impact it has on their lives. “They get great jobs, sometimes their families come back together. I see women and their children, I see husbands and wives get back together, and they’re more positive after they leave LA kitchen. They are more focused on their journey of being positive with their life.”
Egger considers Empower’s strongest asset to be the diverse mix of ages within each class. “It’s an intergenerational process in which they learn with and from each other,” he says. “So it’s this kind of cascading knowledge, side-by-side approach to building community.”
From a big picture perspective, LA Kitchen is hoping to reframe the way society views our homeless and hungry. “If there’s one thing I’m proud of,” says Egger, “it’s being part of changing people’s attitudes about their fellow citizens.” With fresh ideas and an appetite for success, LA Kitchen is cooking up innovative solutions for our society.