LA Kitchen: In 1989, Robert Egger was a DC music scene veteran, working the doors at some of the city’s legendary punk clubs, when he founded DC Central Kitchen. The radical-for-its-time meal distribution and job training program has, in the nearly three decades since, produced more than 30 million meals, helped 1,500 people gain full-time employment, and spread to over 50 “campus kitchens” across the country.
But in 2013, Egger, spurred by what he describes as “unlimited supply and a growing demand” for his services, moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles to launch LA Kitchen (the DC operation is still up and running on the East Coast without his involvement), a hybrid business and nonprofit culinary job-training center for former inmates and at-risk youth. During the 15-week culinary program, students learn culinary skills, nutritional basics, and life empowerment lessons, as well as intern at trendy LA restaurants like Broken Spanish. Nearly all of the graduates wind up getting jobs at local restaurants.
The for-profit component takes the shape of Strong Food, a contract meal operation that hires graduates to prepare healthy meals out of foods purchased from local suppliers that would otherwise go to waste. Their primary recipient is low-income seniors, a demographic that Egger has become increasingly fired up about in recent years, noting that LA has the largest concentration of older people in America. (LA Kitchen was founded in part with a $1 million grant from AARP, the single largest grant in the foundation’s history.)
“Wrinkled food, wrinkled people, no waste,” says Egger, who is possibly the only James Beard Humanitarian Award winner to regularly pepper his interviews with the English language’s most notorious four-letter word (as in, “I came out here to make LA one of the most innovative cities in world with respect to older people, and I’m running up against some walls, so now I have to fuck it up.”).
Second chances play a huge role in the LA Kitchen ecosystem -- for ex-convicts and young adults timing out of the foster system, for food destined to go to waste, and, as Egger points out, for an entire population of elders that’s increasingly ignored. But Egger’s mission goes beyond issues of hunger: “Hunger isn’t about food. That’s just the beginning,” he says. “The real question is, what do we have to do now to make sure you’re not hungry tomorrow? That’s where most people stop, and it’s where I love to go. It’s a deeper, more imperative, more challenging commitment.”