Liberty’s Kitchen is an organization near to my heart. A simple way to describe it is as a nonprofit, workforce training enterprise that teaches culinary skills to individuals ranging from the ages 16 to 24. While this description is factual, it is also grossly inadequate because Liberty’s Kitchen is so much more than this. Janet Davas founded the institution in 2008. She wanted to help with the rebuilding of our young people after Hurricane Katrina. More specifically, this program focuses on our most vulnerable youth who are disenfranchised and disconnected from opportunities to reach their full potential. The mission is to provide pathways for New Orleans youth to create and achieve their vision of success through workforce training, leadership development, and support of healthy lifestyles. It has several components, including a healthy school lunch program, cafes and a catering service. The school lunch program currently serves 5 schools and dishes up 3,000 nutritious meals each school day. I have been a board member since 2012, and I consider it a great honor to be able to serve in this capacity.
The 2016 Cowen Institute report titled “No Longer Invisible” sets out the problem Liberty’s Kitchen seeks to solve. It states in part that, “New Orleans is seeing incredible growth in opportunity and investment as its national profile grows in entrepreneurship, dining, and quality of life. However, it ranks second worst in the country in terms of income inequality. It also ranks 99 out of 100 major cities in terms of income mobility.”
There are a substantial number of youth in this city who are neither in school nor employed. The results of this limbo are predictable and point to what needs to be changed. If New Orleans is ever going to really thrive, we have to support our youth and do what we can to help them thrive.
Janet Davas heeded this call and began Liberty’s Kitchen with two students. Since its humble beginnings in 2008, more than 600 students have been served through the workforce readiness program and more than 2 million healthy school meals have been served by way of the school nutrition program.
The highlights of this endeavor include 16 weeks of intensive workforce readiness training. In addition to this, the participants receive assistance to acquire stabilized housing, a state ID, a bank account and are also paid a stipend. Each student rotates through 8 practicum tiers to gain experience in basic culinary, catering, baking, restaurant Back of House, customer service and school nutrition training. This is followed by an externship. There are even daily lessons and coaching on soft skills such as what it takes to be a good employee as well as career pathways.
During the last stage of the program participants receive support to further their education, gain employment in a sector of their choice or spend a little more time sharpening their culinary skills. The success rate is very high. 90 percent of the students are either employed or go back to school upon graduation. One year later, 75 to 80 percent of the graduates are still doing well. This is in part due to the 8 months of follow up support and leadership development. There are weekly workshops on education, career advancement, health and wellness, civic engagement and advanced culinary practices. In fact, no one is ever really put out of the program. The staff is always there to offer support and guidance, and the graduates are encouraged to return as mentors to the new students.
As we are all aware, the challenges facing our youth in New Orleans are many. Much of it has to do with the rising cost of housing and other basic necessities, while the pay fails to keep pace. One of the things I love about Liberty’s Kitchen is that they partner with businesses who pay competitive wages and actively work with their partners to create paths to careers that pay enough for graduates to participate in true social mobility. They even support graduates in entrepreneurial endeavors through coaching and sometimes offer seed funding.
The good news doesn’t end here. Just last month, Liberty’s Kitchen announced the opening of a second café in the Freeport McMoRan building at 1615 Poydras Street. “Program participants who have successfully completed Liberty’s Kitchen’s entry-level hospitality industry training will have access to “next level” training, equipping them with the skills and experience they need to climb the ladder to sustainable, living wage jobs and leadership positions in their chosen field. ”
The press release announcing the new venture goes on to quote David Emond, Liberty’s Kitchen’s Executive Director who said, “Our city is home to thousands of courageous, resilient young people who are so important to our future. When we invest just a little in their potential, the return is a dramatic expansion of locally sourced talent. Everyone wins. We are so grateful to Freeport- McMoRan for thinking outside the box and recognizing the opportunity to achieve meaningful social impact through this partnership.” The other café is located at 300 Broad Street in the Whole Foods building.
Yes, everything I’ve written is compelling, but it still doesn’t explain what Liberty’s Kitchen means to me. The only way to do this is to tell you about my experience with one of the program graduates. At the first retreat I attended, I was partnered with a young man who had recently graduated from the program. He was gainfully employed, excited about his future and thriving, a real success. His thousand-watt smile lit up the room. That he could do whatever he put his mind to was obvious. He was confident and had such a positive attitude. I figured he was one of those people born with charisma and a strong sense of self. Our assignment was to tell about ourselves, then go back to the group where each partner would describe the other. I asked him to go first. What he said literally stunned me. The mountains he had to climb and the adversities he had to overcome to be sitting in that room with me were staggering. I would never in a million years have guessed the pain and determination behind his beautiful smile. I was amazed and in awe. His story broke my heart and made me stronger and more resolved all at once. He mentored me. No excuses and no giving up. The family he found at Liberty’s Kitchen was his support system. He saw his infinite options and decided to pursue passions other than food, such as music and art. I am not going to give the details of his particular struggle, but suffice it to say I didn’t think he was possible. How could someone go through what he had gone through, most of it not because of bad choices made by him, but because of horrible circumstances and things over which he had no control and still be the amazing human being I saw before me. To get up every day and hope for better in spite of everything life had taught him up to that point, showed his courage and the love and support given to him at Liberty’s Kitchen. He was truly cared for and this helped him to believe in himself. Student after student cried tears of joy because they finally had a family who loved them and helped give them the tools they needed to face the world and triumph. Young women spoke to me with pride about the fact that they were employed, self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves and their young children. What happens at Liberty’s Kitchen on a daily basis is beautiful and magical. I will always support this program and hope you will too.
Tuesday, May 2nd is Give NOLA Day. Please consider a donation to Liberty’s Kitchen. You can also visit the website at libertyskitchen.org to learn more. I can’t think of a worthier cause. This organization most definitely has the recipe for success!
(Photos provided by Liberty’s Kitchen)