When it comes to non-profits, most have a specific focus of where they are creating change and offering support. Perhaps the most unique thing about L.A. Kitchen (and it’s a tight competition) is that their work encompasses eliminating food waste, unemployment, homelessness, and bringing nourishment to the city’s most vulnerable communities - all with one tool: food. Within just one of their three programs, they offer a free, 14-week culinary training to both emancipated foster youth, and older adults coming out of homelessness or incarceration. (Not to mention the others that create meals made entirely of donated ingredients to be donated to other organizations.) I had the joy of speaking with one of their own, Theresa Farthing, who is the Lead Cook of their Impact LA program and L.A. Kitchen’s first student hire out of the Empower LA program. I quickly learned that their mission of “neither food nor people should ever go to waste” is not just a motto - it is their heartbeat.
What drew you in to work for L.A. Kitchen?
I always wanted to be in culinary. L.A. Kitchen offered a free program which was great for me; for a person that has a blemished past like mine. I felt that I was unhirable, so I just jumped at the chance to enroll into the Empower Program. I went through a 14 week culinary program, and honestly when I was offered the job I was really scared to leap out of the way that I had been living into a new way of living. But I went on and I did it, and was happy that I did.
Can you share about your background, and what brought you into the the program?
Well my background was drug abuse, and I was in and out of jail. I was homeless, by choice. That went on for about four years, until the day I got tired. I got tired of that life and I just wanted it to end. But I didn’t even know how. How do you end the situation that you’re in?
The last time that I went to jail, I was confronted with a judge that told me I was the type of person that wouldn’t obey any rules. She said that she wasn’t going to give me another chance, and that I couldn’t appear before her court with another case - and if I did, she was going to send me to prison. That was my bottom, because I did not want to go to prison. Another thing was that my son’s daughter was about to be born during that time. And they said he cried, saying that I wasn’t going to see his first child be born. That just hit me hard, you know.
So I did everything that was ordered. I went to outpatient drug programming. I went to meetings at night. I had community service. Every day of the week I had something I had to do. I did that for eight months, and got all my cases got closed out. It actually would have taken four years, but I did it in eight months.
How did you hear of L.A. Kitchen in the midst of this?
I was a resident of the Downtown Women’s Center. There was a flyer on the bulletin board, and I didn’t read it at first, I just saw the word kitchen. Then I got stuck in an elevator one time and started reading the flyer. It said free culinary program for women over 40 with a criminal record. And I was like, this is me - I fit all the qualifications.
So I went through the orientation, and I found out I had to apply for L.A. Kitchen. That was another fear of mine, to apply, because many times I had applied for a job and didn’t get it. So I felt that if I had to apply for something, it just wasn’t going to happen. But I was reassured that I was taking the correct steps to get into L.A. Kitchen.
So I jumped in - even with all my fears, I jumped in. It was a program that would change my life.
When I started school, I was 52 years old. So I was really, really worried about retaining the information. I thought that maybe I couldn’t, or maybe I was too old, or maybe I had a little bit of damage from the drugs, but that wasn’t true at all. I found out all I needed to do was study hard, and it would pay off. And it did. I graduated as a valedictorian of my class, and I’m the first student hire here at L.A. Kitchen.
L.A. Kitchen does so much good in so many areas, from working to eliminate everything from food waste to unemployment. Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of each of your programs?
Empower LA is the culinary training program; the program that I went through. They also have a life skills class, and you have a counselor on staff. All the students are different - their situations or circumstances. L.A. Kitchen helps you all the way, so you really don’t have a problem of getting through. They supply transportation, they supply the uniforms, they supply the education, they supply your lunch. I think you can do it, you know what I’m saying? Everything that they have set up for the students is just awesome.
Strong Food is the profit of L.A. Kitchen. We have contracts with different places to sell the food products we make. Right now they’re making beet chips and baby food. I started in Strong Foods - I would take a recipe for four people and convert it into a recipe for a thousand. I did that for about a year, and then I was transferred to the Impact department, where I’m the Lead Cook.
In Impact LA, we make meals for seniors, for the homeless, and for some after-school programs - all with donated food from farmers and restaurants. We never know what we’re going to make, because we don’t know what food we’re going to get. We make about 2,000 meals a week. It’s just a wonderful feeling to be able to do this.
We also have volunteers that come in and help us prep the food. We’ll have anywhere between 3 volunteers to 60 at a time. So for all of the food we need prepped, we bring it out, wash it, and work together with the volunteers. They help chop it down, and we’re able to inform the volunteers of different ways of not wasting food. We also do composting; we try our best not to waste any food whatsoever.
All of these programs address such important ripple effects that are happening both within LA and around the world. To truly make long-term change, we have to go to the root of an issue. However, I know sometimes this means it can be difficult to see an immediate effect. Do you ever struggle with not feeling like you are seeing the fruits of your labor?
I’m very satisfied on a daily basis. Every day that I work is a day closer to feeding somebody that might not have had a meal.
Every day, I know somebody ate.
Every day, I show a volunteer how not to waste food. If that information goes from me to another person, then that person takes it to another person, the word gets out. And I do see more on social media about programs of helping not to waste food. Everybody’s trying to work together to solve this problem.
What kinds of impact have you seen on the lives of those participating in the Empower program?
I see students more proud of themselves. I’ve heard of stories of families that told students they don’t even want to see them anymore. And then they graduate, and their family members are there. I’ve seen marriages come back together. I’ve seen children reunited with their mothers. I’ve seen them go on to great culinary jobs, get their own apartments, buy a car; things that they never thought about. I see it happen all the time.
The students have more confidence in themselves knowing that they can do the right thing and live a good life.
It’s a total turnaround in their entire attitude about living.
What role does unity play across your programs and within your staff?
It doesn’t matter what position you have here at L.A. Kitchen. Everybody does what they need to do in order to make it work. We’re more like a family here. If somebody needs help, you just get in and you help. I’ve had office workers help me break down boxes. You don’t have to ask the question. We are there for each other, and we’re very close knit.
Food has a power to connect people - we’ve all experienced this at the very least around a dinner table. How do you believe food can bring people together on a larger scale?
I think being grateful. Not just being grateful for what somebody has done for you, but being grateful for what you’ve done for someone else. When you’re brought together, I think those are the messages that that comes out in people. Every day we eat lunch together here at L.A. Kitchen - we call it staff meal or family meal. We cook the food and we all eat together. My family does this every Sunday too. We all get together, and everybody makes a dish, and then at the table we all say what we are grateful for.
If you pay attention to the broader picture, you hear of people coming together with food, say at a picnic in a park. And nobody’s family. You have all these different people that come together and it’s this happy event. It’s the humanity of it.
Theresa pictured above
It sounds like you have an incredibly diverse group of volunteers from different ages groups, cultural communities, and backgrounds. What kind of ripple effect of its own do you see this create?
I get people from different races and ages - even some seniors. I accommodate everybody according to their needs. We had a senior once who couldn’t stand, so we set her up at a table in a chair and she was able to cut her vegetables. It was just so sweet. The other day, we had teenagers. They talk and get a little loud, but at the same time, they put everything together.
We actually have had kids that were like 7 to 8 years old put together some little snack bags. When the people came to pick it up, we showed the kids the food that they made going off to feed people. They knew then that they helped somebody. All you saw was big smiles.
Regardless of the age, the race, it doesn’t matter. They feel they are a team. And that’s exactly what they are.
I love L.A. Kitchen’s mission that, “Neither food nor people should ever go to waste”. How does this mission influence you personally?
I do not waste food anymore at home. Like for a bell pepper - the stem and the seed is all I’m throwing away. A lot of people cut the top off and throw it away, and I did that same thing. But I can take two tops, dice them up, sauté it, and that’s one portion for somebody to eat. That’s just the way I see it now. If I throw it away, it’s somebody that I kept from eating.
I eat healthier. I make my own sauces, dressings, barbecue sauce. I don’t eat unhealthy food anymore - I don’t have to. I know how to cook in a healthy way. I was meant to be here at L.A. Kitchen. I was meant to be doing the work that I do. I think it was in me, it just needed to come out of me. This is how I wanted to be, and who I wanted to be.
Do you have a personal motto for your own life?
Oh my goodness. I say so much. I say this to the kids all the time: Anything worth having is worth working for.