“Many people told me not to do all this because I wasn’t ready but I believe that the key to success is to start before you are ready.”
In 2014, I started La Cocina VA, a workforce and entrepreneurship development nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., area, to help immigrants and low-income individuals find jobs in the food service and hospitality industries that can transform their lives. It is designed to address the coexisting problems of unemployment, food insecurity, low English levels and lack of entrepreneurial opportunities these people face. Our students range from 18 to 60 years of age, and we estimate approximately 70 percent live below the poverty level — many well below that level.
The problems I am trying to solve
Although we started by focusing on the Latino community, we expanded services to include other immigrants and low-income individuals and veterans in 2018. Our clients are mostly unemployed women who suffer from chronic poverty and food insecurity. Our program teaches students the basics of commercial cooking and technical English, certifies them through a local community college, and places them in jobs in hotels and restaurants. In addition, our students prepare healthy meals from food that is donated to our kitchen services, then distribute them to low-income families and homeless individuals.
Our new, 5,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) will triple our capacity to serve people. And through our Culinary Small Business Development Incubator, we will provide individuals with all the resources they need to become entrepreneurs, such as with a catering business or food truck.