L.A. Kitchen: Neither Food or People Should Ever Go to Waste
‘Charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.’
Each of us has experienced the power of food to bring people together; whether through the intergenerational passing down of recipes and techniques, serving the less fortunate, or even around our own kitchen tables. But when it comes to helping people who are hungry, our systems are plagued by fragmentation, reinforcing models that perpetuate the kind of dependency that make breaking these cycles impossible. This antiquated model is inequitable ineffective and has more of a lasting impact on the ‘giver’ than the ‘receiver.’ The new L.A. Kitchen is at the heart of an innovative approach, a transformative model that uses the universal power of food to foster volunteerism, civic and social engagement, and voting.
First, we will recruit diverse L.A. residents to volunteer and join us in our commercial kitchen and produce processing hub, renewing raw fruits and vegetables into “strong” meals and nutritious snacks. Once there, volunteers will find incredibly real, rewarding work to be done. Very often, these perfectly edible items are discarded by farmers because they don’t appeal to a mass, privileged market; but thanks to L.A. Kitchen, they will be recombined as nutrient-rich, dignified fuel for hungry and at-risk individuals. While some of our volunteers will be the recognizable, middle-class do-gooders whose generosity currently supports nonprofits across the city, older adults who want to stay active and engaged and students from local high schools and universities seeking service hours will be a huge part of our mission, turning our kitchen into a gathering place and classroom. Everyone has a role to play and job to do at the L.A. Kitchen, and all are welcome!
Volunteers won’t be the only ones standing in our production line. At their side will be young men and women aging out of the foster care system and formerly incarcerated adults. These seemingly unlikely-paired groups will be enrolled in a pioneering three-month job-training program, allowing them to develop real culinary skills, while simultaneously mentoring one other & enriching the community.
Volunteers will interact on a human level with the very people they thought they would be serving, and together, they will nourish Los Angeles on a new level and be challenged to a degree that personal paradigms will shift. Both groups will be guided through the daily process by L.A. Kitchen staff, and most will have completed the rigorous culinary curriculum and earn living wages.
Once we’ve humanized hunger and joblessness in the minds of our volunteers, we will expose them to the true power of their dollars and their votes.
As consumers, each of us possesses great power. “Strong Food,” L.A. Kitchen’s dynamic social enterprise, will provide high-quality, nutritious items through responsible sourcing and fair employment practices, allowing everyday people to support our charitable work by purchasing our products. We believe in breaking down the obsolete barrier between .coms and .orgs. (for-profits and non-profits), and L.A. Kitchen will provide the top-quality skills and services expected of a for-profit with the social impact of a non-profit. As volunteers, L.A. residents can contribute their time and see meaningful impact as a result. As customers, they can spend their dollars and see the same. We will prove that living wages, an encouraging work environment, quality benefits, and financial transparency are not detractors from a company’s bottom line; they are some of its greatest champions.
Unlike too many nonprofits, L.A. Kitchen is unafraid of political action. Today’s leaders are paralyzed between the false choice of providing public good and creating private sector jobs. The L.A. Kitchen promotes a new civic currency, insisting that both are essential to generating profit and maintaining a civil society.
Employing foster care graduates and ex-offenders is cheaper than re-incarcerating them; recovering surplus food is smarter than throwing it away; giving our seniors healthy meals is less costly & more effective than loading them up with prescriptions. Engaging volunteers and utilizing their professional skills is smarter than having them paint shelter walls over and over again.
Human-to-human interaction, facilitated by food & fueled by social enterprise, grounded in empathy & dedicated to justice will unite Los Angeles around an inclusive vision for a healthier, more prosperous community.
What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?
L.A. Kitchen is brand new. Many of its core ideas have been proven successful – though, never quite in this dynamic combination. L.A. Kitchen is the latest venture of Robert Egger, the author of the award winning book “Begging for Change, The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding for All” and the pioneering creator of D.C. Central Kitchen, The Campus Kitchens Project, and CForward.
D.C. Central Kitchen, founded in Washington, D.C. in 1989, is now a thriving $11 million nonprofit with a $6 million social enterprise portfolio. Egger created DCCK to turn leftover food into balanced meals in a ‘central kitchen’ that could in turn deliver them to 100 other nonprofits that were spending too much for substandard meals. There, he launched a culinary training program that brought in some of the city’s toughest cases – men and women written off as hopeless, helpless, or both – and prepared them for lasting careers. Since 2008, DCCK’s 370 culinary graduates have averaged a job placement rate of 90%, despite the weak economy, and are 96% less likely to return to prison than ex-offenders nationwide. Egger’s results inspire 14,000 individuals to contribute their time and effort as volunteers to DC Central Kitchen each year.
Egger launched The Campus Kitchens Project in 2001, because he saw a generation of young people dedicated to community service, but few nonprofits capable of maximizing their tremendous potential. Today, there are 34 CKP sites in 20 states across America, led by 5,000 tireless student volunteers who turned idle college and high school dining halls and cafeteria leftovers into new tools in the fight against hunger. In addition to preparing meals, CKP is preparing a new generation of community leaders. In 2012, 45% of CKP’s student volunteers reported that their experiences had changed their entire career path, opening their eyes to new needs and new opportunities.
His work in Washington earned him numerous accolades and awards, including being named an Oprah Angel, the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year and a Washingtonian of the Year.
In 2006, Egger Co-Convened the first Nonprofit Congress, and in 2011, he launched CForward, America’s first Political Action Committee for nonprofits. Nonprofits comprise 10% of the US economy and 10% of the American workforce, but they speak with no common voice in our electoral process. In 2012, CForward made history by endorsing 8 candidates, representing both major parties, who had strong, clear plans for strengthening nonprofits and their role in solving key problems. Most won. This work also earned him a spot on the “Top 50 Most Influential Nonprofit leaders” four years in a row.
Now, Egger’s energy, experience, and entrepreneurial spirit are here in the region where he grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, with an added focus on fighting the needless waste of fresh produce and strengthening our senior citizens. It’s time for change.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels, EngAge and AARPCA know the unique needs of our city’s senior citizens well, and we have forged exciting partnerships that allows for direct outreach to L.A.’s elders.
We will build on the job readiness programming provided by programs like our partner Chrysalis, as well as programs that focus on supporting emancipating foster youth and returning felons.
We will provide student volunteers with service hour opportunities & nutrition education, which will make the LA Kitchen a dynamic partner for LAUSD.
We will work with Central Valley farmers, chefs, and the UCLA Arts and Healing Center to develop recipes that will pioneer the “food as medicine” movement.
Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?
Old metrics that have defined ‘success’ in the nonprofit sector–meals prepared, clients served, expenditure on overhead–are as tired as the solutions they claim to measure. We believe in integrated metrics to show valuable synergies between programmatic activities.
First, we will push back against the status quo of measuring impact based on “pounds moved or agencies served.” Big does not equal good, and L.A. Kitchen will pioneer measuring the nutritional content of what we serve. We will partner with local medical schools & nutritionists to develop metrics that can quantify the medicinal / health impacts of the meals we serve. This will shatter the typical way we measure the impact of “hunger” programs and incentivize a new way for foundation officers and regular people to understand which programs are making people strong, versus those who are endangering people’s health in the name of feeding them.
Second, we will assess the impact of our dynamic approach to volunteer engagement. By building a base of strategically managed senior citizen volunteers, we will generate more than free labor. We will re-imagine the way nonprofits measure the value of volunteers by extending that value to the tangible benefits provided to volunteers themselves. By offering physical activity and intergenerational engagement opportunities (mentoring to at-risk / younger individuals), our senior citizens will lead healthier, more connected lives. And by actively recruiting the potentially isolated seniors who rely on L.A. Kitchen meals and nutritional items to volunteer in our kitchen, we will be energizing individuals, who in turn bring that energy to a meaningful outlet of community service. Giving seniors a place to re-invest all they know and have experienced will produce cost-effective – & actually effective – mentoring and social support services for at-risk populations, including ex-offenders and emancipated youth. The interplay between qualitative results–changes in perceptions, reported shifts in behavior–and quantitative ones – hours of community service among marginalized populations, vitamin intake among seniors, and reduced recidivism – will tell a far more compelling story than either form of evaluation alone.
Finally, we will capture changes in voting & political behavior. In partnership with the nonprofit sector’s PAC, CForward, we will track increased nonprofit activity in the electoral process through social media & lobbying activities, while surveying individual nonprofit workers & volunteers about their perceptions of the role of nonprofits. In time, the many rating systems for charities, which claim to address questions of effectiveness and fiscal responsibility, should change their approaches on savvy business techniques, quality job creation and strategic, nonpartisan political activity as vital indicators of a thoughtful, well-built nonprofit organization, & our success in effecting such change will be a vital indicator of our continued work.
How will your project benefit Los Angeles?
- empower older Los Angelenos, those not returning to prison because of participation in our program, and foster youth who will avoid their anticipated cycle of life-long system-living
- use healthy food to offer meaningful volunteer opportunities
- unite diverse populations in the battles against hunger and poor health
- help the city redefine aging, making LA more whole, freeing up resources used to address declining health and prison terms, and redistributing it in much more impacting ways
Too many volunteer experiences achieve little for those purportedly being served. Our efforts to train at-risk members of our community for decent jobs mean we are pulling men and women out of the service line & empowering them to be part of the solution. Volunteers will see that transformation in action, and demand similar accountability and results from all their community service activities. Financial donors demand detailed accounting and transparency; nonprofits owe volunteers the same respect when they give their time and labor.
Second, we will bring together a diverse group of L.A. residents to fight hunger together. We will place special emphasis on recruiting and leveraging older volunteers, men and women eager to redefine retirement. LAK will engage thousands of these experienced community members each year, empowering them to remain active and involved as they grow older.
Our intergenerational approach will unite our elders with at-risk youth, especially those in the foster care system. We will also offer a meaningful mentoring program that is specially geared toward preventing destructive, shortsighted behaviors and negative outcomes among foster youth. Many of these mentors will be fellow trainees, men and women returning from years in prison who made the mistakes and learned the lessons the hard way. We will empower men and women who have turned their lives around to counsel and coach young people about the key decisions involved in avoiding prison and addiction. In turn, the younger men and women will help older trainees transition into the cyber-world of today.
Helping any one of these populations is valuable. Helping them to help one another is visionary.
Third, we will engineer a change in business practices and political debates by educating and engaging individuals as consumers and voters after they come to us as volunteers. The success of our social enterprises will empower nonprofits to launch new enterprises and inspire for-profits to change their approach. When consumers understand the full costs of substandard wages and low-quality food products, the competitive balance of the marketplace will shift. Similarly, individuals will have a new understanding of the vital role nonprofits do and must play in political debates and policy solutions if we are to meet the challenges of this century. We will be nonpartisan, but not nonpolitical.
What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?
Our vision for Los Angeles in 2050: our city will unite individuals of different generations, cultures, and tax brackets to make engagement, volunteerism, voting, and responsible business practices essential components of our daily life.
For a town that worships youthfulness, the notion that we can make it a hub for the redefinition of aging might seem unrealistic, but this is at the core of the L.A. Kitchen experiment. Given the extra years that science is affording us, it is economically essential that older Americans live at home and stay productive for as long as possible. We must develop programs, establish metrics and elect officials to make that a reality NOW, not in 10, 20 or 50 years.
It may be strange for an organization that will focus on strengthening senior citizens to speak so boldly about a future nearly fifty years away. But if you’re a young adult reading this today, you’ll likely be a senior citizen in 2050. We want senior citizens to be valued, treasured citizens, and to see their later years as a new opportunity to connect to their communities. We will prove that our model of intergenerational service and engagement will empower seniors to live healthier, more active lives while sharing meaningful knowledge with fellow residents.
We will reveal the economic power of keeping our older citizens engaged and respected. Redefining aging, while also providing healthy meals, will have a huge impact on the city’s treasury and its ability to invest money in its schools, parks and other community enhancing initiatives.
LA Kitchen believes that organizations should treat volunteers like any foundation officer or donor, and provide reporting on the impact, value, and long-term results of their contribution in the lives of those it serves and the community we share. We believe that increased transparency among nonprofits will inspire active engagement among volunteers, donors, and other community stakeholders, as they hold nonprofits like L.A. Kitchen to account, demanding that we make the most of our available resources and constantly innovate in service of our community.
We also envision a future where mission-driven nonprofits are unafraid to act politically. It isn’t a violation of tax laws to educate lawmakers, inspire voters, or speak truth to power. Rather, doing those things is an inherent part of what a values-oriented organization must do to earn its tax-exempt status. In our vision, nonprofits, public sector agencies, and for-profit actors all have equal seats at the decision-making table as we devise shared solutions to our common problems.
Finally, we seek a future where for and nonprofits alike behave responsibly in their business practices. American-made products, living wages, and preventative health care must be part of any viable business model. Accountability among employers will inspire harder-working employees, increased worker productivity, and profits that ultimately fuel growth & development in Los Angeles.