Innovation

America’s Cities Have A Hunger Problem That Can't Be Solved With Food Alone 

by Liz Ohanesian

February 2, 2018
Volunteers prepare meals for homeless shelters. All photos via Joseph Nakhost.

THE GOOD NEWS:

Food donation programs are going far beyond efforts to reduce food waste — they’re also helping the needy develop that job skills that could help lift them out of poverty.   

 

On a recent Tuesday morning in northeast Los Angeles, a large industrial kitchen is piled with heaps of beautiful vegetables, including leafy greens and bright red tomatoes. Rows of sparkling knives and chopping boards lie neatly on countertops like the set of a television cooking show.

Volunteers trickle into the conference room of L.A. Kitchen, preparing to cook for an organization that delivers the meals to homeless families. On the menu: a stir-fry with broccolini leaves, bell peppers, and a wide selection of other colorful veggies.

L.A. Kitchen takes donated food — largely produce deemed “imperfect” — that might otherwise be wasted and turns it into meals for local homeless people and seniors.

“The future is more hungry people and less food available,” says Robert Egger, CEO of L.A. Kitchen. “So the question is what are we going to do with the abundance that we have right here, right now, to change that dynamic?”

Every year, 30-40% of food in the U.S. goes to waste. Meanwhile, the USDA reports that 12.3% of American households are food insecure. The solution to both these issues may seem simple: Get the food that would otherwise be wasted onto the tables of the people who need it. And L.A. Kitchen does exactly that.

L.A. Kitchen also teaches cooking to students of all ages. 

The menus at L.A. Kitchen are what Egger refers to as “plant-forward,” using Southern California’s bountiful harvests — a good portion of which might otherwise go to waste — to create economical, nutritious meals.

Their production model is almost like a cooking competition: Twice a week, pallets of donated food arrive from farms and other related businesses. The kitchen team has no idea what they’re getting until the shipment arrives, which means that their first move is to figure out what needs to be used right away and what can be stored as well as research how to use less-common items. Then they can finally plan menus around the arrivals.

Ultimately, this wing of L.A. Kitchen, Impact L.A., will provide thousands of meals to homeless and seniors through local nonprofits.

This isn’t the first time Egger has worked with food that might otherwise be trashed: Before L.A. Kitchen, he spent 24 years at the helm of D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization that helped pioneer unique model of food redistribution in the nation’s capital.

In recent years, though, fighting food waste has become a major cause that could have a big effect on food-driven charities. “It might seem like a cornucopia that will never end,” Egger says of surplus food, but he anticipates a time when enough entrepreneurs start for-profit businesses with excess produce — like former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch’s Daily Table endeavor — that farms and wholesale companies may be reluctant to keep donating.

Egger firmly believes that treating the root causes of hunger requires more than just food and that L.A. Kitchen needs to go beyond providing meals if they want to affect change:

“While I respect colleagues and a system that has historically given away free food to feed the poor, [what] I’m trying to say is that you’re not solving the problem. You’re doing good work, but in 20 years, there’s going to be just as many poor people, if not more, than there are now because you’ve taken what should be fuel for job training, fuel for social engagement, fuel for political action, and used it just to feed the poor.”

Egger notes that it’s easier for nonprofits to just “feed the kids” instead of liberating their parents from the economic burdens that impoverished them in the first place, so he made job training an integral part of L.A. Kitchen’s modus operandi. They’re not just out to liberate parents — the organization aims to help seniors and newly independent adults as well. L.A. Kitchen also launched a food brand, Strong Food, in order to provide jobs and fund some of their training programs.

Volunteers prepare donated vegetables.

Back in the industrial kitchen, students dart across the expansive space as they prepare to begin their third week in a course that will last several months. It’s their second time working with volunteers on meal preparation, washing and prepping the lush spread of vegetables.

Some students lead demos in that “Top Chef”-style kitchen, but many enter the program without much — if any — cooking knowledge. While at L.A. Kitchen, they’ll learn everything from the basics to the leadership skills needed in a professional kitchen.

The group’s job-training branch, Empower L.A., works with students aged 18 to 60. This includes young people who’ve aged out of the foster care system as well as people transitioning out of homelessness or incarceration. The program includes an internship and job searches, preparing these adults for work in the local food industry.  

The organization helps out older students too. Theresa Farthing, community outreach specialist for L.A. Kitchen, went through the inaugural Empower L.A. program when she was 52 and living at the Downtown Women’s Center, a regional homeless shelter.

“L.A. Kitchen is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” Farthing says. She’s been with the organization for almost four years and, in that time, has prepared meals for thousands of people. She’s a fountain of knowledge who can demonstrate how to curb food waste in home kitchens and tell you how to incorporate carrot tops into pesto or dehydrated tomatoes into aioli.

Farthing takes into consideration the diverse identities of the people she feeds and thinks about the different health challenges faced by seniors when deciding which meals would benefit them most. “It makes you a little more compassionate when you’re making these meals,” she says.

Los Angeles’ population is getting older — the number of folks 65 and older is set to increase 43% by 2020. These numbers reflect the national trend of aging populations struggling with everyday life. Retirement savings are slim, unemployment rates are high for women over 50, and Social Security benefits alone won’t necessarily keep a person afloat.

“Part of the L.A. Kitchen was built in anticipation of this frightening reality of how many older people are going to fall into poverty in their old age — primarily women because women outlive men and women outnumber men,” Egger says.

He says the number of meals served isn’t enough for groups fighting hunger in the U.S.

Instead, aid organizations need to ask the bigger questions: How many people can pay their own bills now or take care of their own families now or live independently now? Or feel alive or wanted or needed now?

Share image by ​Joseph Nakhost.

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America’s Cities Have A Hunger Problem That Can't Be Solved With Food Alone