Inspiration: Liberty’s Kitchen–Turning School Food and Food Schooling Upside Down in New Orleans

As New Orleans braced itself for the arrival of Hurricane Isaac late in August 2012 the thoughts and good wishes of those far away were and remain with city’s residents. It seemed unjust that the city should be hit again and again when the monumental destruction that the 2005 Hurricane Katrina left in its path, and the subsequently inadequate response of the authorities, was already so devastating for the coastal metropolis. The Katrina crisis shone a bright spotlight on the infrastructural, public services, and general poverty and unemployment problems that have festered unchecked in the city and this spotlight brought with it a tsunami wave of anger. Enough was enough—things had to change. For a few, that meant subduing their frustrations and taking practical action with initiatives to turn the city around.

Liberty’s Kitchen—a social enterprise that is dedicated to transforming the lives of New Orleans’ at-risk youth—is one such project.

Liberty’s Kitchen Youth Staff Are Hard at Work and Helping to Make School Food Healthier in New Orleans (Photo Credit: John Paul Henry Photography)

The program provides unemployed youths with food service-based training, leadership, and employment programs, while offering a healthy and innovative food menu to the public at Liberty’s Kitchen Café and Coffee House. With help from a W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant, the project was co-founded in 2009 by Janet Davas who wanted to implement an at-risk-youth skill-building model in New Orleans. And the model has worked.

“Ninety six percent of our trainees are employed upon graduation—that’s better than Harvard,” enthused Davas in an interview.

Changing the lives of New Orleans’s youth is not the organization’s only success. Liberty’s Kitchen has also kick started a Healthy School Lunch Program at the New Orleans College Prep Charter School that serves two purposes: it functions as a training ground for their student chefs, while providing daily nutritious meals to the school’s 600 kids.

“What the school served before was a horrendous menu of fried and pre-processed food, soda, cookies, and candy,” said Matt Schwartz, Chair of Liberty’s Kitchen’s Board, “and only 30 percent of kids were having the school’s breakfast with less than 60 percent eating school lunch.”

Although some kids did not like the healthier Liberty’s Kitchen options at first—and many just did not know what they were looking at when they held a baby carrot—almost two thirds now eat school breakfast and 95 percent choose school lunch.

The organization currently sources most of its produce from large distributors who guarantee that the food does not travel more than 370 miles. However, they have started to lay down the groundwork for more local partnerships as the enterprise grows—Liberty’s Kitchen is looking to expand their local school lunches program to serve 3,000 kids by 2015 by developing a new 10,000 square foot space.

“We’ve begun investigating partnerships with local community and urban farms and we hope to be implementing such strategies by the time we move to our new location,” said Chris Brooks, Liberty’s Kitchen’s Business Manager (who originally moved to New Orleans in 2005 to provide hurricane relief efforts with United Way).

The extra footage will also help serve their grander, newer ambitions of helping to change how healthcare is taught and delivered in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina destroyed many large hospitals in the city, which were already overburdened. Getting healthcare to people in a post-disaster setting presented a significant challenge that Tulane University physicians met by opening a street corner community clinic—equipped only with a card table for an office—just a few days after the storm. This approach has taken hold in New Orleans and the authorities are taking the opportunity to overhaul the public healthcare system by building community health clinics all over the city to bring care to low-income areas.

One of the biggest roles of the clinics will be to provide continuous preventative care and treatment for preventable diseases—like obesity and type 2 diabetes—before they become unbearable and the patients need hospital treatment. But, for that, you need medical practitioners who know how to help communities be healthier. This is exactly the vision that Dr. John B. Elstrott, Chairman of Whole Foods Market and Director of the Levy-Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship at Tulane University‘s A. B. Freeman School of Business, had when he took an interest in the New Orleans public system reforms. “He wanted us to be part of that,” said Matt Schwartz, so Liberty’s Kitchen’s is currently discussing ways in which it can collaborate with Tulane University to help educate Tulane medical students on how to teach people from low-income areas to live and eat well.

The curriculum, that blends medical and culinary arts, will be part of an exciting new program that is a collaboration between Johnson & Wales University (JWU) Providence and the Tulane University School of Medicine. Doctors, medical students, chefs, and community members in the program will focus on the significant health role that food choices and nutrition play in preventing and managing obesity and associated diseases in America. The initial program will start at Tulane and will offer medical hands-on community outreach, give instruction in strategic relationship building with community organizations, and practice community cooking classes on Liberty’s Kitchen’s premises.

Do you know of any great organizations that are transforming school food and food education? Leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at INESAD.

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