In New Orleans, training a lost generation while feeding the next

Wed Mar 4, 2015 12:49pm EST
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By Jonathan Kaminsky

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - At age 17, Akira Holmes dropped out of high school and had a baby. Last week, the 18-year-old stood in a crisp white chef's jacket at a cafe in New Orleans, on the cusp of completing a training program she expects will transform her life.

Liberty's Kitchen, which moved last fall to a sleek 10,000-square-foot space housing a professional kitchen and an eatery, endeavors to throw lifelines to young people on the verge of being swallowed by poverty and crime. Some of its trainees, aged 16-24, are homeless. Many have criminal records. Most have dropped out of school.

Liberty's Kitchen also provides healthy, fresh meals for some of the city's poorest school children.

Holmes smiled broadly while explaining how Liberty's Kitchen, with its four-month program encompassing practical kitchen skills and lessons in responsibility, had come to feel less like school or work and more like family.

"It's wonderful," she said. "I've been going through so much stuff at home, this is my only escape. It just keeps me up and keeps me going forward."

Founded in 2008 in a rundown duplex across from New Orleans' criminal courthouse, Liberty's Kitchen is among a growing group of social enterprises nationwide focusing on job training and operating food-oriented businesses.

A consortium of like-minded entities, known collectively as Catalyst Kitchens, run programs ranging from barista training for kids in Seattle to teaching the unemployed in Washington, D.C. to cook. Since 2011, membership has tripled to 67 in the United States and Canada.

   Liberty's Kitchen, which had an inaugural class of two students and last year graduated almost 50, is unusual in how quickly it has scaled up and in its prospects for further expansion in a city where, uniquely, almost all public school students are in charter schools, which can individually contract with companies to feed their kids.   Continued...

Students prepare food in a kitchen in this July 18, 2013 handout photo provided by Liberty's Kitchen in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 3, 2015.   REUTERS/Liberty's Kitchen/Handout via Reuters