Why it’s Okay to be a Copycat – Lessons from a Social Enterprise

Why it’s Okay to be a Copycat – Lessons from a Social Enterprise

The non-profit LA Kitchen, and their developing for-profit subsidiary Strong Food, are Southern California based Social Enterprises developed by Robert Egger to combat food waste and unemployment. While both of these social issues are in extreme need of resolution, and any organization that addresses both at the same time deserves high praise, I’m choosing to tell you specifically about L.A. Kitchen because of something that caught my eye when I was checking out their Mission & Values section. I give you (drumroll please) L.A Kitchen’s eleventh and final value:

“Smart solutions should be shared. We will be open-source, sharing our model and welcoming all visitors.”

This value encapsulates exactly one of things that I find so exciting about Social Enterprises, and yet not nearly discussed enough. This is the idea that, unlike in the corporate world, when a social enterprise’s business model is wildly successful it can (and should) be copied by other social organizations, in other geographic locations, to successfully combat serious social issues. Unfortunately, it’s highly likely that even in the social sphere, the practice of coveting successful models still reigns supreme.

With this is mind, and in the interest of acknowledging that sometimes it’s OKAY to be a copycat, let’s take a look at what the successful social enterprise L.A kitchen is doing to kick hunger’s a** (both, as their value’s explain, physically and metaphorically).

Food Recovery

Each year, 40% of all edible food in the United States goes to waste, costing more than $165 million. In California alone, approximately 6 tons of food is thrown out each year, making this the single largest source of waste in the state. L.A. Kitchen is designed to combat this. Their 20,000-square-foot health code approved food processing hub works with local farmers and produce wholesale companies, collecting fruits and vegetables that are unsalable due to cosmetic issues or lack of commercial demand. Volunteers, students, and staff transform all donated and purchased food into healthy meals, snacks, and food products. LA Kitchen anticipates that they will reclaim a million pounds of produce within their first year, creating from that around 990,000 meals, snacks, and food products.

Culinary Job Training

At the end of 2012, California had 132,785 prison inmates and 56,500 parolees. Each inmate costs the state about $47,421 annually, and parolees face high unemployment rates (70-80%). Statistics show that for foster youth leaving the system, 1/5 will be arrested or incarcerated within a year, and half will be unemployed within two years. Roughly 1,500 foster youth “age” out of L.A. County’s child welfare system each year.

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L.A. Kitchen works to combat both the above problems. Their on-staff social workers focus on the needs of emancipated foster youth and older adults transitioning out of incarceration. This “unlikely and powerful pairing” helps to both reduce systemic patterns of recidivism, and reverse anticipated outcomes for foster youth with little transitional support. Throughout the 15-week training cycle, L.A. Kitchen students receive daily hands-on training from a certified culinary instructor, attend sessions on specialized techniques taught by local guest chefs, and intern with innovative industry professionals. Graduates receive food handling certificates, job placement support, and continuing personal and professional support.

Food Distribution

In 2012, more than 49 million people struggled with hunger nationwide, and more than 1.9 million people struggled with hunger in Los Angeles County. L.A. Kitchen works to address this by distributing fresh and nutritious, meals, snacks and food products to social service agencies that serve Los Angeles’ most vulnerable populations. They prioritize support to programs that serve aging residents, understanding that the number of older adults in Los Angeles is expected to double in less than two decades, and that many are expected to suffer from chronic conditions that can be reversed or prevented by a healthy lifestyle. L.A. Kitchen’s food products will also be made available to after-school programs, drug treatment centers, and programs that empower the homeless.

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One organization, successfully and transparently addressing (way) more than just one serious social issue: food waste, hunger, unemployment, recidivism, homelessness, and the health crisis. I’d say L.A. Kitchen has left us with some serious food for thought – wouldn’t you?

Written by Kate Reid

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