Liberty's Kitchen (www.libertyskitchen.org) functions as a cafe and a classroom, teaching work and life skills to young people. The nonprofit organization also runs a school nutrition program that prepares 3,500 meals a day for low-income children in New Orleans public schools. Executive Director David Emond spoke with Gambit about program.
How did the School Nutrition Program come about?
Emond: Liberty's Kitchen is all about providing pathways for New Orleans youth to create and achieve their vision of success, and we do that through a combination of workforce training, leadership development and support of healthy lifestyles. Our School Nutrition Program is our core program to enhance our healthy lifestyles objective. The goal is to provide kids in New Orleans public schools with access to the freshest, healthiest, made-from-scratch food that tastes great and that they really want to eat every day.
We were on the forefront of the healthy schools movement in New Orleans around 2010. A lot of it was related to Michelle Obama's focus as the first lady. One of the things with charter schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that charter school organizations could select their own food service provider. As a smaller, boutique player in this field, we could have never fed the whole school district, but we were able to partner with a single charter school organization and feed their students. We started out with New Orleans College Prep in 2010, at which point they only had one school. ... They now operate four schools at four campuses and we feed all 1,500 or so of their students. We feed them up to five meals a day. ... On any given day, we're serving about 3,500 meals. It's about raising the bar for kids that in many cases are getting the vast majority of their nutrition in the school environment.
How does the program differ from more traditional ones?
E: The government has put into place really elevated standards in terms of what kinds of food can be served to students, particularly in low-income communities who qualify for federally supported lunch programs. Where we try to differentiate ourselves is that we make everything from scratch, and we make it on site at the schools. Our food has very little preservatives and as a result, we think it not only tastes better, but it's better for them. Our main competition in the whole sector (are) very large, multinational companies. As a smaller nonprofit that isn't as concerned about making money off of this service, we're able to hopefully use a little bit higher quality ingredients and also be much more responsive to the wants and the needs of the students. We routinely survey them, to see what they like and what they don't like. ...
How do New Orleans' schools rank in school nutrition programs?
E: Certainly, there are cities that are far ahead of us. I think that has to do with the fact that we are a culture that likes fried, heavy food. So we'll serve, what we call "fried chicken" that's actually baked. It helps broaden their perspective and broaden that trust where a young person is willing to take a little bit of a risk, and then will realize, "Wow, I really like this." We try to really focus on things that we know they're really going to like.
The schools we work with have performed really well, and we believe food plays a role in that. It's been documented that one in three Louisiana children is likely to develop diabetes in their lifetime. So we need to provide children with exposure to foods that aren't going to kill them.