Doctor’s Notes: How LA Kitchen is Empowering Foster Youth, Former Convicts with Food

Michaela Ruiz, Manager of LA Kitchen Impact, shown with carrot muffins. Photo Credit: Robert Egger

Blemished produce and people are often deemed “undesirable.”

But Robert Egger sees both differently. Egger, founder and CEO of LA Kitchen, thinks no one’s potential—let alone a potential meal—should be wasted.

To that end, he’s giving former convicts, seniors and youth who are aging out of the foster-care system job training at his Los Angeles organization.

Egger opened LA Kitchen in 2013, after successfully running a similar organization in Washington, D.C. for more than 25 years. The 59-year-old philanthropist grew up in a military family and moved frequently as a child, but feels a strong attachment to Southern California, where he lived as a little boy.

LA Kitchen is both a physical place and a philosophy. The brick-and-mortar space is a 20,000-square-foot building in LA’s Lincoln Heights district that houses working kitchens. The philosophy is about empowering people with food. Egger believes training chefs, while serving quality food, makes for better futures for the trainees as well as the people getting fed. Plant-based, vegetarian recipes are the mainstay of LA Kitchen.

ChrisAnna Mink is a pediatrician who practices in South Los Angeles.

The organization has three programs, which help carry out its mission.

The first is Empower LA, which trains ex-cons, seniors, homeless residents and former foster youth for careers as chefs and professional restaurant workers.

The second is Impact LA, which uses donated imperfect fruits and veggies from local farmers, food vendors and residential gardens that likely would’ve been discarded. The Empower LA students turn the produce into nutritious meals, which are then donated to local social service agencies, including senior programs, homeless shelters and youth organizations.

The third program is Strong Food, the for-profit segment of the organization, which helps support the two non-profit programs. The organization buys locally grown food, including slightly defective items. Then paid employees, including about 10 former culinary graduates, prepare the food to sell to local businesses or under contracts.

I visited LA Kitchen, in part as a pediatrician, to learn about a career resource for my older foster-care patients. Transitional age youths are 16 to 24 years old and often age out of the system with a limited ability to support themselves.

According to the Casey Foundation about a third of foster kids finish high school on time and less than 3 percent graduate from college. More than half of former foster youth battle unemployment when they leave the system. Few of them have biological or foster families as a safety net when they venture into adulthood.

My initial visit was on the first day of a new training session for 26 chef-wannabes. The food donation that day was nearly 700 carrots, which had been shaved and baked into muffins for a senior center.

“Students get a high on their first day,” said Egger, “Their [meals] are feeding seniors and kids.”

In the massive kitchen, the new students were cleaning the equipment until it was sparkling. Their pride was as beaming as the equipment. For most of them, such success was unfamiliar.

“We receive twice as many applications are there are positions,” said Zaneta Smith, associate director of clinical and student services. LA Kitchen receives student referrals from about 100 social services agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.

Smith noted that the students are in the training kitchen for eight weeks and learn 45 skills that are essential for getting a job. Then weeks nine through 11 are spent in real-life settings, ranging from fine dining restaurants to “mom-and-pop” cafes. The program is provided at no charge to the students.

About half on the 26 students complete the training, which is similar to other culinary schools. More than 85 percent of graduates get a job. After graduation, the training continues with life-skills lessons, including money management and how to move up the professional ladder.

“LA Kitchen taught me how to cook healthy and to be a stronger individual,” said Sandra Vasquez, a 2017 grad of Empower LA.

Vasquez, now 26, was placed in the Los Angeles foster care system when she was 10 due to physical abuse. She has learning disabilities and aged out of the system at 21 with no plan for the future.

In high school, Vasquez liked cooking class and wanted to be a chef but didn’t know how to become one. Her foster-care caseworker connected her to LA Kitchen. Now, Vasquez said, her dream is coming true. She’s starting her own catering business this July.

Darnell Harper is a current student at LA Kitchen. “I’m in an early release program from prison and I was offered this program,” he said, during one of my visits to LA Kitchen.

He found LA Kitchen’s videos on YouTube and was impressed with Egger’s message. Hoping to turn his life around, Harper enrolled in the program.

“I liked that they didn’t waste food and help the disenfranchised,” Harper said. “That brought me in.”

When asked if he would recommend LA Kitchen to others, Harper quickly responded, “Already have!”

And, so have I.

Just a few days after visiting LA Kitchen, I was taking care of a 19-year-old admitted to the hospital with an infection due to an old gunshot wound.

He previously had been involved in a gang and had been shot in the abdomen about 18 months before. But then he had stopped participating in gang activity and had finished high school.

When I asked him about his plans for the future, he said he didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he liked cooking. It was perfect timing: I told him about LA Kitchen.

Pediatrician ChrisAnna Mink writes the bimonthly Doctor’s Notes column on children’s health. 

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