L.A. Kitchen’s large facility just outside of Downtown L.A. trains a hundred culinary students each year, but they’re not your typical students.
Former inmates work alongside former foster youth in this unique intergenerational program aimed at providing them with employment opportunities in the foodservice industry. 1,500 foster youth age out of the system each year, with much higher odds of arrest and unemployment than their peers. Parolees likewise face unemployment rates of up to 80%. Through job training and relationship building, L.A. Kitchen wants to change these statistics.
“The idea at its core is generations learning with and from each other,” said Robert Egger, founder and CEO of L.A. Kitchen. “Sure it’s a culinary training program, but younger people come in struggling with ideas about their destiny, and older people can share their experience, and can keep younger people from going down the path that they did. And the older people feel like that makes their lives matter.”
These intergenerational relationships often go beyond the 15-week program. “It’s fun to see these friendships evolve beyond our doors,” Egger said. Students go out on weekends together, and often return after completing the program to mentor new students. This creates a sense of community and joint purpose so needed in these often-marginalized populations.
L.A. Kitchen considers how to make an impact in every aspect of its operation. It believes that neither food nor people should go to waste—and as a result, it takes multi-pronged approach to hunger, recidivism, unemployment, health and food waste.
“We’re identifying what most people think of as problems – older felons, foster kids, wasted food – and we say no! These can be dynamic parts of a business. What you view as the problem can be part of a new solution,” said Egger.
This business includes L.A. Kitchen’s programs Strong Food and Impact L.A., which prepare healthy, affordable meals for social service agencies, after-school programs and senior meal programs across Los Angeles County. Working with local farmers and wholesalers, L.A. Kitchen reclaims produce that are cosmetically imperfect and would otherwise be thrown away. Students, volunteers, and recent graduates of the program who have been hired by Strong Food then prepare dishes like tandoori chicken, beef barbacoa and teriyaki salmon for distribution, and have garnered praise in the process. “We’re getting almost 100% ratings of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ on our meals because we took a lot of time talking to people and testing out menu items,” as well as using fresh produce and cooking from scratch, Egger said.
While L.A. Kitchen’s operations sound wide-ranging and well-established, it’s only come about in a few short years. “We’ve gone from an idea to a 20,000 square foot kitchen, and at almost every juncture The Eisner Foundation has helped us take our ideas and make them real,” Egger said. “We wouldn’t be here without The Eisner Foundation.”
L.A. Kitchen isn’t just feeding the community, it’s engaging it. Almost every day, groups of volunteers join the students to help prep produce, and Egger wants to encourage intergenerational connections there as well. “Let’s create a vibrant place where kids feel like they’ve done something, and the older generation feels engaged. Imagine the power of an intergenerational group of volunteers learning from an intergenerational group of students,” he said.
They’ll certainly need the extra hands in the years to come—L.A. Kitchen wants to eventually ramp up production to 5,000 meals a day, which will require more students, volunteers and reclaimed produce.
“This is about feeding a deeper hunger in America. We want to give people a chance to be part of something bigger.”Back to Eisner Journal Directory