Growing up in Huntington Park, a community in southeastern Los Angeles County, my classmates and I saw many programs designed to help at-risk youth — but most of them missed the mark. These initiatives failed to take into account the issues that shape our experience, including the complexities of homelessness, hunger, criminalization and immigration.
Purpose-driven restaurants and food establishments, such as Homeboy Industries, are the exception. Led by individuals who take it upon themselves to help vulnerable populations in Los Angeles, these organizations don’t pretend to have a one-size-fits-all approach. They see the kitchen as a healing space for individuals who are often shunned by traditional job markets and society at large. More importantly, some of these establishments, such as Dough Girl, are there to change young people’s lives before they face incarceration and its long-term implications. These organizations are able to thrive and profit, while ensuring their employees learn marketable skills and feel valued as people.
The public can support the mission of these social enterprises by purchasing their excellent food or produce at their restaurants, retail shops or nurseries, by hiring them for catering services or visiting the restaurants they supply.
Below is a list of food-related organizations that are changing the model in which people prepare and eat food. They prove that compassion doesn’t have to get in the way of quality or good business sense.
The Bread Project
The Bread Project is a nonprofit organization that offers job training to low-income youth, the chronically unemployed and those at risk of becoming homeless.
Subsidized housing specialists Lucie Buchbinder and Susan Phillips founded The Bread Project in December 2000 to assist low-income housing tenants obtain job skills. After starting operations at the San Francisco Baking Institute, the organization built partnerships and moved to the East Bay. Today, the nonprofit owns its commercial baking facility in Berkeley, where it offers both hands-on job training and affordable incubation space for small businesses.
The Bread Project’s 4-week Bakery Production Bootcamp provides commercial baking training and workforce essential life skills for free. Graduates receive job placement assistance for 15 months and are connected to potential employers as soon as they finish the program. This includes referrals to additional trainings that can help graduates find a fulfilling career.
While the organization is working on distributing its baked goods directly to consumers through Whole Foods, the public can find their products through some of their San Francisco-based partners. The Bread Project mixes cookie dough for Doughp, a cookie shop serving raw cookie dough, and bakes the buns for International Smoke, Ayesha Curry's barbecue restaurant.
More Businesses With a Purpose
Founded by chef Gabriela Cámara, the San Francisco restaurant Cala hires formerly incarcerated people and works with a referral service to recruit employees as waitstaff.
Most inmates can speak at length about what it’s like to be a server after re-entry. Often, these are some of the few jobs open to them. Unfortunately, they can often mean meager pay until they can find something better. But Cala hires its servers through probation programs and adds a 20% gratuity fee to everything on its menu to provide staff with a living wage.
Employees are trained in service and hospitality. To Cámara, serving others is about joy. Cala is committed to providing training that allows its employees to succeed, while making sure they can sustain themselves in one of California’s most expensive cities.
Delancey Street Foundation/Delancey Street Restaurant
The Delancey Street Foundation provides housing and employment training for people who are homeless and deal with substance abuse. Through its various programs, such as Crossroads Café, participants are trained in vocational and academic areas focusing on a combination of manual, clerical and interpersonal/sales skills that help them seek gainful employment.
Delancey Street Restaurant is a San Francisco food icon but also a training school for residents. The restaurant opened in 1991 and its trainees are taught by some of the best chefs in the country.
Some nonprofits focus on just one aspect of social justice and good. San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation takes a holistic approach to helping people of all ages and ethnicities — and it has expanded its program to six education homes around the country. The Delancey Street Foundation is completely run by participants who benefit from the organization’s programming and benefits.
Dough Girl is an unassuming pizza parlor tucked into a Van Nuys strip mall that offers delicious out-of-the-box options, including vegan pies, spicy flavors and seafood toppings. But it’s about much more than just pizza. Owner and founder Mar Diego hires at-risk youth and teaches them how to cook.
Diego is candid about how her life journey and how it led her to her pizza shop. The concept was born when she landed in jail and was assigned to cooking duties. The kitchen allowed her to connect with food and people alike, a passion she further developed when she was released from prison. After meeting teenagers from the local high school and hearing about the issues they face, she shifted her business model to help the most vulnerable kids in her community.
Dough Girl helps employees find affordable housing and provides them with networking opportunities. Diego’s only requirement is to love food and appreciate hard work. She wants to show her community how food can heal and provide options off the streets. Diego wants to help at-risk youth before they enter the criminal justice system.
Homeboy Industries is a social enterprise offering job training to formerly incarcerated individuals. Homeboy Industries also offers tattoo removal services, resources for people struggling with substance abuse, and assistance for domestic violence survivors.
When Father Gregory Boyle arrived at Dolores Mission Church in 1988 to be a pastor, he steered away from a system that encourages over-policing and founded Homeboy Industries as a way to help gang members turn their lives around. The nonprofit has expanded into training programs in different industries, including food preparation, solar panel installation, silkscreening and embroidery, that prepare participants to work at Homegirl Cafe and Isidore electronics recycling, among other Homeboy-owned businesses.
Homeboy Industries continues to thrive in spite of a business model designed to change lives instead of becoming profitable. Father Boyle seeks out people who are normally not given a second chance.
Kitchens for Good
Based in San Diego, Kitchens for Good has culinary training programs that focus on reducing food waste and training people often deemed unemployable by conventional standards.
Many social enterprises become nonprofits, but founder Chuck Samuelson wanted his social enterprise to sustain itself. Kitchens for Good trains people deemed unemployable in various industries. This includes people who deal with substance abuse issues, victims of domestic violence, youth that have been a part of the foster system, and the formerly incarcerated.
Its employees and graduates are also trained in preventing food waste and turning it into healthy meals for people who are hungry. In order to sustain itself, Kitchens for Good offers catering services that create the revenues needed to sustain its programs for social good.
Planting Justice is a landscaping company that promotes food justice by training members and locals on urban farming techniques. They target formerly incarcerated people and those who have been economically disadvantaged in Oakland, a city with a history of activism and community involvement.
Planting Justice provides former inmates a chance to learn about landscaping, plant nursing, and horticulture. The organization trains people formerly imprisoned at San Quentin Prison.
In addition to providing job training and leadership development for people in re-entry programs, the organization also designed a high school curriculum that teaches young children about food justice. Committed to a living wage, Planting Justice’s starting salary for new employees is $17.50 per hour.
The public can support the organization by purchasing plants, including fruit and nut trees, cacti, vegetables and herbs at the organization's organic nursery, Rolling Nursery, both in person and online.
Founded in 1993, Rubicon Bakers focuses on hiring people who have a history of being on the margins. The bakery is well-loved for giving its employees second chances. The products made at the Richmond facility are sold across the country.
Rubicon Bakers was once a failing bakery, and its former owner looked to Andrew Stoloff, a Wall Street employee, to sell it on his behalf. Stoloff ended up buying the business himself and promised current staff no layoffs despite new management.
Stoloff took his mission further when he opened employee opportunities to the formerly incarcerated, people with chronic unemployment and those who had faced substance abuse. Against all odds, Rubicon Bakers is now a thriving business that provides staff with benefits, a liveable wage and has a loyal army of employees.