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Second chances

Posted: November 6th, 2015 | Featured, Features | No Comments

New nonprofit strives to feed and train the needy with reclaimed food

By Dave Schwab

Restaurateur Chuck Samuelson had an “epiphany” when he saw usable produce being needlessly tossed away.

“I saw cases and cases of apples being sorted through and much of it thrown in the dumpster because it was bruised or had soft spots or was cut in shipment or had a little funny shape,” Samuelson said. “That just stuck in my head — all that waste.

“If I had those apples, I would make apple pie, jelly sauce, etc., not throw it away.”

That inspired the former food manager for Stone Brewing Co. to spearhead the creation of a new nonprofit, Kitchens For Good, located in recently acquired space in the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation in Market Creek east of Downtown San Diego.

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(l to r) Executive Chef Darren Street and Banquet Chef Kevin Ohl prepare food (Courtesy Kitchens For Good)

The new nonprofit seeks to give the area’s hungry and its unemployed a hand up.

“In the United States, 40 percent of all edible food is disposed of, half of which is fresh produce with minor cosmetic imperfections,” said Samuelson, founder and president of Kitchens For Good. “In Southern California, we produce enough food, yet still see one in five San Diegans who are unsure of where their next meal will come from.”

Samuelson’s new innovative approach to tackling hunger is to look at it as a full cycle, not only treating its immediate needs, but addressing it at its sources.

“By training individuals, previously perceived as unemployable, to work in San Diego, we will serve to shorten food service and shelter lines,” Samuelson said.

Kitchens For Good already has started these unique programs that work hand-in-hand to end hunger and poverty in San Diego:

  • Project Reclaim — establishes a system for sourcing surplus and cosmetically imperfect produce from local farmers and wholesalers. With an average estimated 140,000 tons of food reaching San Diego’s Miramar landfill each year, Kitchens For Good aims to effectively decrease the county’s output of food waste, while rescuing viable produce that would otherwise be disposed of.
  • Project Nourish — rescued foods comprised of fresh fruits, vegetables and other farm-fresh produce, will feed the Project Nourish program. As the second step in the Kitchens For Good model, produce and fresh foods will be gathered at the Jacobs Center kitchen for preparation of healthy and nutritious pre-packaged meals.
  • Project Launch — the establishment of a 13-week culinary training school in January 2016 will mark the third, and arguably most important, leg of Kitchens For Good’s programs. Project Launch, a free educational program, will train unemployed and underemployed individuals to work in the hospitality industry, San Diego’s second largest industry for employment. Held at the Kitchens For Good facility, students will assist in the creation of healthy meals for Project Nourish, while adhering to a nationally recognized curriculum developed by LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchens in Los Angeles. In addition to gaining hard skills and experience, graduates will receive job placement and counseling services to ensure long-term stability and success.
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Chuck Samuelson shares the nonprofit’s message(Courtesy Kitchens For Good)

Samuelson’s new career direction came sharply into focus once he realized he could make a difference. After that, he set about consulting with hunger relief groups, food banks and others, including the Leichtag Foundation, to begin exploring ways to implement his notion for re-purposing slightly imperfect food that would otherwise be wasted.

That led them collectively to acquire space at the kitchen and events center of the Jacobs Center For Neighborhood Innovation in September.

“I really didn’t want to do the traditional nonprofit model where you live or die by grants or donations,” Samuelson said, adding that his new approach builds on the idea that “kitchens can be an economic engine for good in their communities.”

It’s Samuelson’s grand plan to transform the kitchen operation at the Jacobs Center by turning it into a self-funding and self-sustaining private catering company that will both provide jobs and strive to end local hunger.

“We believe we can do $1.4 million worth of business in events and catering,” he said.

Profits from that will be reused for Kitchen For Good’s new culinary training program and Samuelson said the venture is a win-win for everybody.

“We’re making and providing nourishing meals, and we’re giving culinary training to people to help get them out of poverty,” he said, adding that all aspects of Kitchens For Good tie in with the concept of creating an integrated circular food system that feeds on itself.

“We give students the products [produce] to work with to make meals for senior centers, school lunches and for the hungry, and revenues from events and catering are driven back into the [other] food programs,” Samuelson said, noting that the ultimate objective is to take the model being created at Jacobs and transport it regionally throughout San Diego County.

In just a matter of weeks, Kitchens For Good has gone from just three employees to 28, and Samuelson intends to pay his employees a “living wage” of $15 per hour.

“We’re looking right now in the Diamond District for staff,” he said, adding that he also intends to employ the formerly incarcerated as well as foster youth aging out of the system, to help give them a helping hand, too.

In fact, Kitchens For Good plans to offer that second chance by accepting up to 80 students into to the culinary program its first year, with a goal of having 70 percent of them placed in full-time employment within six months of graduation.

Jennifer Gilmore, former executive director of Feeding America San Diego, recently joined the organization as executive director. Gilmore brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise with San Diego’s most pressing hunger issues, having piloted a number of the city’s essential hunger relief projects in her former role.

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Samuelson, Ohl, and Street at the recent San Diego Press Club awards (Courtesy Kitchens For Good)

Gilmore’s experience includes leading successful efforts to expand emergency food distribution to communities affected by limited access to grocery stores, low wages and the high cost of quality food.

Samuelson said he is thankful to have so many people who’ve helped him launch Kitchens For Good, including staff at the Jacobs Center and the Leichtag Foundation, both which have helped with his venture from the start.

He characterized the vision behind Kitchens For Good as “clean,” and its multi-pronged approach as “very synergistic.”

“This makes sense, all the processes which sort of interconnect and support each other,” he said. “It gives me great hope that we can do this thing and make it work well.”

To learn more about Kitchens For Good, visit kitchensforgood.org.

Dave Schwab can be reached at dschwabie@journalist.com.

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