Since forming in 2009, the nonprofit Liberty's Kitchen (422 1/2 S. Broad St., 822-4011; www.libertyskitchen.org) has taught job skills to teens and young adults at its Mid-City cafe and catering operation. In 2010, the group expanded by taking over food service at the New Orleans College Prep Charter School in Central City, besting several national vendors for the contract. Trainees in the Liberty's Kitchen program prepare breakfast and lunch each day for the school's 600 students, of whom 97 percent are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. Hackett has worked in New Orleans restaurants since 2000 and joined Liberty's Kitchen last year.
Gambit icon: What's on your lunch trays these days?
Hackett: The kids told me what they wanted to eat, so we're cooking a lot of dishes they're familiar with — red beans and rice, jambalaya, smothered greens with cornbread — but we're cooking it from scratch and making it as healthy as possible. Pizza day is very popular, but our pizza has handmade dough, homemade sauce, lots of vegetables. I learned that veggie pizza is a lot more popular if you hide the veggies under the cheese.
G: What are some of the challenges to improving school food?
H: You have to work within certain limitations set by the USDA, and it takes a lot of paperwork to keep track of it all. The thing with preparing fresh food is it has less calories than frozen, processed food, and you have to provide a certain number of calories for the guidelines. But we adjusted, adding more protein without just adding a lot of fat. That's what you can do when it's scratch cooking.
G: What does this program mean for Liberty's Kitchen trainees?
H: Most have no work history before they come to us, which means they've never been assigned a task, completed it and been praised for it. Most of them are just a few years older than the kids they're serving, they remember their own school experiences, and I think they want these kids to get something better. They know what they're doing is more than just a job where they'd be pushing fries out.