L.A. Kitchen cooks up program for training older ex-offenders

Robert Egger, the founder of L.A. Kitchen.

Robert Egger, the founder of L.A. Kitchen.

L.A. Kitchen, a startup nonprofit expected to launch early next year, will train older ex-offenders – those at least 60 years old – for food service jobs. It will also tackle the problem of hunger among the elderly and work to keep youth leaving the foster care system out of prison.

It may be a lot to attempt, but founder Robert Egger is more than up to the task. As the former president of D.C. Central Kitchen, which has been feeding the hungry for nearly 25 years, he knows what it takes.

But L.A Kitchen will be a bit different than what he’s done in the past. Rather than focus on the homeless in general, the attention will turn towards seniors, who Egger says will be the next source of homelessness and poverty in America. His idea attracted the AARP Foundation, which became a founding partner and has committed $1 million over the next three years to an effort which embodies all of the foundation’s focus areas: hunger, income, housing and isolation among older Americans (50 year olds and up).

In fact, nearly one-third of the homeless population of Los Angeles is over the age of 50, and a UCLA study released in 2007 found that 47 percent of older Californians did not make enough money to cover their basic needs. (The number was slightly higher in LA. County.)

But back to the project. L.A. Kitchen plans to get fruits and vegetables – produce that’s overripe, blemished and cosmetically imperfect – donated or to buy them at a reduced price. These could come directly from farmers, from wholesale markets or imported food that arrives at a Los Angeles port past its prime. The organization will process what it gathers into healthy meals for older people and others.

“There’s a huge business behind trying to provide healthy meals for older people,” Egger says. And he plans to tap into that through L.A. Kitchen and its for-profit division, Strong Food. Strong Food will sell fresh produce, as well as products made from that produce. Among its employees will be graduates of the training program that L.A. Kitchen is setting up.

The 12-week training program has been designed to inculcate a variety of culinary skills and produce graduates who are certified ServSafe food handlers. Students will receive a stipend while attending classes and potentially a job when they graduate, either in Strong Food or possibly at a temporary agency that Eggers would like to create to provide culinary workers to hospitals and other institutions.

The training will be a unique experiment, bringing together older students coming out of the correctional system and kids coming out of foster care.

“Statistically kids coming out of foster care are on their way to prison,” says Egger. “Can we foster a multigenerational mentoring system? Can younger men and women help older people re-acclimate to a world that’s very different (than the one they left to go to prison)? Can the older people help keep the younger people out of prison?”

These questions are yet to be answered. But if the responses are yes, the program may provide a new social model that could help lower both first-time incarceration and recidivism rates and provide steady work to those who might have a tough time finding it otherwise.

As for the ex-offenders, “It’s not enough just to train and employ people. You have to have something that helps people catch up for the years they spent behind bars,” Egger says.


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