There was a lot going on at L.A. Kitchen. Over the course of six years, the Lincoln Heights-based non-profit had developed a multi-pronged approach to address the interconnected issues of hunger, food waste and employment opportunities in the city. They made a lot of progress and generated significant attention for their innovative programs. In October of 2018, though, L.A. Kitchen shut its doors.
L.A. Kitchen brought together young people aging out of the foster care system with older people returning from incarceration for a 15-week job training program. Robert Egger, who founded L.A. Kitchen and has since moved to New Mexico, says that, altogether, more than 140 people graduated from the program and that, combined, they are earning over $3 million a year in salary.
Those working in the kitchen were given a task: "How do you feed more people, better food for less money?" The result was a "plant-forward" menu. These weren't meatless meals, but ones where the produce took center stage. "I was very excited because of L.A.'s proximity to the Central Valley and an inordinate supply of fresh, healthy, flavorful food," says Egger by phone. And so were the people they fed. Egger notes that the rating cards accompanying meals consistently came back with positive remarks.
They worked on reducing food waste, not just with the produce they purchased, but in their own preparation. "We were showing that you could chop, dice, puree, juice, zest, then take the leftovers from that process and make stocks and super fortified broths," says Egger, noting that what remained after all this could be composted.
While L.A. Kitchen meals fed people from all age groups, their target was Los Angeles' elder population. Egger, who had started D.C. Kitchen in the nation's capital back in 1989, says that he wanted to focus on Los Angeles in part because it has a large senior population that is increasing and because the number of seniors facing poverty and hunger is also rising. In addition to feeding seniors, L.A. Kitchen wanted to create jobs for older Angelenos as well. "Even though there's a huge employment market in L.A., if you're over 50, it's very difficult to find work," says Egger.
Where L.A. Kitchen hit a snag was in the for-profit arm of the endeavor, says Egger. L.A. Kitchen had been trying to get a contract with the L.A. City Department of Aging. "We spent two years losing money trying desperately to show the Department of Aging that we were dependable, committed and inspired partners for them, but they had no interest," says Egger. Ultimately, L.A. Kitchen didn't have the funds to continue.
Now, Egger is game to share his insight with others. "If you want to start a kitchen, I'll help," he says. He's also interested in procurement reform in cities, finding an answer to the question, "How do you take away the idea of low bid and replace that with best value?"