Sandra Vasquez’s first foster home taught her a hard lesson in nutrition.
“The only thing I would eat, as I remember, was hotdogs and cup of noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Vasquez said. “That’s all I would have with those foster parents.”
A neighbor noticed that Vasquez was thin and lacked warm clothing, and called Los Angeles County’s child protection system, bringing that foster care placement to an end for the 10-year-old, her older brother and her younger sister. The three siblings were moved to a much better foster home, where they enjoyed plenty of food, including pupusas, stuffed corn flour cakes which are part of Vasquez’s Salvadoran heritage.
Fast forward 16 years and the now 26-year-old is trying to make nourishing others her life’s work.
Vasquez’s passion for cooking convinced one of her mentors in Los Angeles to get her enrolled in a training program offered by a nonprofit called L.A. Kitchen. In operation since 2014 with a budget of $3.5 million, L.A. Kitchen reclaims potentially wasted food, trains the unemployed for jobs and provides healthy meals to people in need.
Its job training component, Empower L.A., teaches transition-age foster youth and formerly homeless and incarcerated people food preparation and readies them for the workforce.
Young people who have aged out of the foster care system are far less likely than their peers to be employed, and their earnings are much lower, according to a landmark study by the University of Chicago. Often, the turbulence of living in foster care and aging out of the system leads to the experiences that many of L.A. Kitchen’s older students have lived – incarceration, homelessness and unemployment. Growing recognition of the employment needs of former foster youth has led to new laws and policy proposals on the federal, state and local levels.
Vasquez, whose challenges are amplified by a learning disability, is also trying to maneuver around a multitude of barriers as she tries to forge a successful career.
A Cooking Class with Wraparound Support
Housed in an industrial building in Lincoln Heights, a working-class neighborhood beside the concrete-paved Los Angeles River, L.A. Kitchen is anchored by a 20,000-square-foot kitchen filled with stainless-steel worktables.
On a recent morning, an Empower L.A. class, much like the one Vasquez had taken, was in session. The 22 students, diverse in age, race and gender, were chopping up pumpkins. They wore identical black uniforms and also shared a common history of misfortune, trauma and institutionalization, having all either been in prison, homeless or in the foster care system.
L.A. Kitchen is the latest iteration of a mission L.A. Kitchen founder Robert Egger has been carrying out for two decades, starting in the nation’s capitol at the D.C. Central Kitchen, where he also trained and employed people who had been in prison or homeless.
About 50 to 60 percent of Empower L.A.’s students complete the 14-week program, and of those, 85 percent have jobs at the end, said Zaneta Smith, L.A. Kitchen’s associate director of clinical and student services.
Students enter the free class through dozens of referring organizations. The class costs about $5,000 per student and is fully funded through L.A. Kitchen’s private grants and donations, Smith said. In addition to daily cooking classes, the curriculum includes life skills training, counseling sessions, internship placements and professional development tutoring that covers resume writing and email correspondence.
With little experience and a complex world to navigate, transition-age foster youth present a unique challenge to the staff tasked with guiding them toward a career.
Smith was hired in 2015 to run the life skills training portion of Empower L.A. and manage support services for students. Frequent crises, often related to students’ unaddressed mental health needs, led her to create an intake process wherein she asks all new students about their psychosocial needs, adverse childhood experiences and suicide risk, she said.
She also began providing weekly counseling sessions to each student and launched an internship program that now brings in social work graduate students from the University of Southern California, the University of California Los Angeles, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Los Angeles and online degree programs.
One of the program’s requirements is that students complete a so-called sign-off packet that shows their knowledge of about 40 culinary facts or procedures. It is a strategy that stems from L.A. Kitchen chef instructor Charlie Negrete’s experience in military training, Smith said.
For Vasquez, who has a learning and reading disability, this was a difficult task.
“I almost gave up. I almost left the program,” she said.
But the chefs encouraged her and helped her make flash cards. She soon memorized the information and graduated.
“They kept on telling me ‘you can do it,’ basically cheering me on,” she said. “They made me feel like I was family to them.”
Investing in Career Opportunities for Foster Youth
Unemployment and low wages are among an array of hardships faced by young people who age out of the foster care system, as Vasquez did when she turned 18.
The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, conducted at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, followed the lives of more than 600 kids aging out of the foster care system in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. In 2010, when they were ages 23 and 24, only 48 percent were employed, and their average yearly income was $12,864. Their peers in the general population had a 75.5 employment rate and earned on average $20,349 per year.
A California study conducted by the same researchers in 2008 had similar results. Foster youth were 56 percent less likely than their peers to be employed at age 24.
“Young people who experience foster care often don’t have the same opportunities as the general population to learn employment skills in their younger years, in high school,” said Maddy Day, who focuses on foster youth’s academic and career development as a leader in Western Michigan University’s Center for Fostering Success. “So, they enter into adulthood without those skills.”
To improve outcomes for transition-age foster youth generally, Congress passed a law in 2008 that gave states the option of receiving federal funding to extend foster care to 21, and 25 states, including California, have started offering the extension to their foster youth to provide them with added support.
There is also a bill pending in both houses of Congress that would make employers eligible for a tax credit of up to $2,400 for hiring current and former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 27. It would make foster youth a special category in the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which already provides tax credits to employers for hiring military veterans, people with disabilities, the long-term unemployed and others. Conceived by California-based nonprofit iFoster, it was introduced in both houses of Congress in 2016.
The bill’s proponents had hoped it would be included in the sweeping tax bill signed by Trump last year. But the provision didn’t make into to the legislation, so they are eyeing 2019, when WOTC is up for reauthorization, to push it through, according to Sean Hughes, a consultant who worked on the bill.
While they wait for that opportunity, New Mexico recently passed a similar law in February that will give employers a $1,200 tax credit for hiring foster youth.
“There are some great examples across the country, but by and large we have a lot of work to do,” Day said. “I think some policies on the state level show promise, but I do think that there needs to be leadership and strong statements coming out on the federal level to say our young people are worth investing in.”
L.A. Kitchen was not Vasquez’s first foray into food preparation. She had been studying culinary arts at Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) for several years and had helped cater events with Wolfgang Puck restaurants.
Following the academic route to a career in food service has been an ongoing challenge for Vasquez. She failed tests and had to retake classes, she said. She was almost ready to quit when the staff at L.A. Kitchen helped her pass her class that allowed her to become a registered food handler in California.
Now, with a stubborn persistence, she is focused on her fourth attempt at an exam she needs to pass to become a registered food manager.
Outside of school, Vasquez has been quietly building a catering startup she calls Sandy’s Cuisine. She has catered a few events and has tasked one of her friends with creating a company website, which Vasquez hopes will be finished this month.
When she finishes at LATTC, Vasquez wants to get more experience working in the food industry, while running her catering company. In 10 years, she wants to start her own food truck, she said. In 30 years, she wants to have her own restaurant.
“I want to catch my dream,” she said. “I see, like, little parts, little pieces getting together.”