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USDA looks at Liberty Kitchen model to duplicate nationally

26th September 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Mizani Ball
Contributing Writer

Within the light blue walls of Liberty’s Kitchen are the white “magical” coats that live on the hangers behind the cookery near a glossy wall. For the students of the Kitchen, the coats’ “magic” transforms these ordinary chef coats to tickets to endless opportunities, whenever they put them on.

When Audrey Rowe, the administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., visited Liberty’s Kitchen on Sept. 20, she too wanted to fully understand what made this place so special. She wanted to find a model she could share nationwide for how a community, and its partners, can open doors for those left behind to gain skills and careers, in the healthy, sustainable and other food sectors.

Liberty's Kitchen participants learn and put into practice their cooking skills at the Liberty's Kitchen café and through school lunch programs that provide more than 4,000 meals for 1,500 Students across New Orleans every school day.

Liberty’s Kitchen participants learn and put into practice their cooking skills at the Liberty’s Kitchen café and through school lunch programs that provide more than 4,000 meals for 1,500 Students across New Orleans every school day.

“I need to find programs like this [to] get me excited to go back and say guess what I saw! And generate some new energy,” said Rowe as she interacted with representatives for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as the federal Food Stamp program. She toured the Kitchen, inspecting the halls, intriguingly rubbing her hands together as if a film of lotion had been leftover. She was inspired.

Rowe, impressed with her tour, said she singled out the culinary and life skills school because of its effective results. Liberty’s Kitchen started in April 2009 after a generous donation from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The program accepts at-risk young people between the ages of 16 and 24 years old in the New Orleans area. Some of the Kitchen’s students have dropped out of high school, while others have obtained their GED or completed high school but are left with no direction to where they want to go in life. The program produces jobs for young people who have come from low-income families and in turn, steer another generation away from governmental assistance programs such as SNAP. The program’s several projects allow students to train in culinary arts, cook fresh meals for over 4,000 public school students who qualify for reduced lunches and develop start up skills for their own businesses.

This youth development program equips students through soft skills, occupational skills and assists with job placement, according to Dennis Bagneris, the youth development program director. The program’s growing reputation has attracted partners like Whole Foods Market, NOLA Green Roots, and Grow Dat Youth Farm, all entities that promote healthy eating in the community and serves as job pipelines for the students. The ability to use the food sector for social enterprise that transforms low-income communities is what Rowe said the federal agency is eager to do.

“Culinary arts has become a real opportunity for many young people and adults to get skills in an industry that is constantly growing,” Rowe said. “Everybody’s going to eat.”

While the training and job placement has been a key tool in the Kitchen’s success, Bagneris told Rowe that the secret-sauce to Liberty’s Kitchen are the staff members. Dix Marie “Ms. Dee” DeLaneuville, is one of the staff members the students singled out as important to their transformation. She works directly with the students as the career readiness instructor. DeLaneuville said she helps the students envision the kind of future they want by making “vision boards.” Many of the students that are in the program come from low-income families, she said, where many felt their voices were balled up or silenced. Part of facing the world is being able to speak up and be confident, she said, and the program provides a nurturing environment where students learn to professionally assert themselves through two-way communication.

“I’ve learned way more from them then they have learned from me,” DeLaneuville said.

By the end of the tour Rowe said she had internalized, why this program stood out and had effective results. Former students have received scholarships to study at elite culinary schools, and others have been hired at top restaurants, including abroad in the United Kingdom. The program’s pipeline to culinary jobs allows graduates to be hired locally, while others continue their education in culinary arts or determine they want to earn a GED, Bagneris said.

Rowe told students during her tour that the right environment allows students to transform their lives and future prospects. She said it was the warm, family-like support at the Kitchen that allowed students to shine and see the Kitchen as a home away from home.

“It is holistic,” Rowe said. “When young people come into the program, the program itself can wrap around those young people all of the resources that they need,” said Rowe, as she clenched her hands together.

Each young person that walks into the clear doors of Liberty’s Kitchen is guaranteed to complete with not only a “magical” white coat, but also valuable work skills, Bagneris added.

And the students’ personal growth has become the biggest source of pride for the staff. “It’s really a badge of honor to be able to have that coat and put it on everyday, and it’s really great to see you guys embody it,” DeLaneuville told the students.

This article originally published in the September 26, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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