News From the Kitchen
If you stroll through the LK facility, you’ll find three huge freezers that don’t belong to us — they belong to Top Box, a community nonprofit focused on healthy food access. Here at Liberty’s Kitchen, we’re all about that! We sat down with Co-Founder and Acting Director Sam Heyman to learn more about this great cause.
What is Top Box?
Top Box Foods-New Orleans, is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization with a simple mission: to empower communities in the fight against food inequality by providing access to healthy foods at an affordable price. We accomplish our mission by partnering with community organizations and houses of worship located in areas that are flooded with fast food restaurants but lack full service grocery stores. We offer community members high-quality fresh produce and frozen lean meats sourced from the same suppliers as major grocery stores and restaurants. We employ mostly volunteers and with little overhead, we are able to keep our prices affordable, typically half of what our customers would pay at the store.
We saw the need to start Top Box after learning about the dire state of nutrition in New Orleans’ food deserts. High rates of diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol plague areas of the city that lack access to a grocery store. In some parts of the city, individuals must drive over 4 miles to get to a store with fresh produce.
For the past three years we have worked tirelessly to make this social business thrive. We have sold over 85,000 pounds of fresh produce, over 81,000 pounds of frozen groceries, and saved our customers over $150,000 dollars on fresh produce alone. As our sales steadily increase we will approach self-sustainability. However, we will always need some donations and development dollars in order to keep our prices affordable for our customer base.
Unlike some charitable organizations, we offer our customers a hand up, not a hand out. Our customers are proud people that only wish to live happy and keep their families healthy. They are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They are black, white, Hispanic, old, young, and everything in between. They rely upon Top Box for their monthly intake of fresh produce and we want to empower them to make healthy choices.
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised just outside of Philadelphia and went to Tulane University. During my underclassman years I became enamored with Tulane’s Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE) minor. For the first time in my life I was exposed to an alternative to the charity model and I became absorbed with the social business concept. During the spring of my freshman year, I was able to take some of the theory I learned in class and use it to help start Top Box. I enjoy my work with Top Box because it connects me to our partners at a grassroots level. Every day I connect with New Orleanians who, in the face of incomprehensible inequality, turn to community for help. I am just happy that we can offer the communities we work with a hand up. Later in life, I hope to effect societal inequities at the policy level.
What’s the vision for a year from now? For thirty years from now?
Our team would love to see Top Box expand, not just survive. We are working to make the business model as sustainable as possible. Our hope is to drive sales to a point where we can rely less on grants and donations. In a year from now, we hope to take Top Box into new markets in South East Louisiana, boosting both our impact and our monthly volume.
What’s the connection between Top Box and Liberty’s Kitchen?
In 2015, Top Box Foods was accepted into the Propeller Start Up Accelerator. During our time with Propeller, LK founder Janet Davas consulted us on our current operation and how she thought we might be able to grow. Her help was invaluable and crucial to our vision for the business.
Additionally, LK executive director Dave Emond has watched us grow from a small club at Tulane into a fully functioning business. He invited us to join the LK community in our current capacity a few months ago. We were in a fix. We had to find a space to store our frozen groceries in the days leading up to our monthly delivery and Dave came through in the clutch! Our partnership with LK has allowed us to increase the variety of lean meats and frozen items we offer. Additionally, local storage allows us to customize each order to a specific customer’s needs. Customers with a choice are happier, and for that, we owe Liberty’s a ton of appreciation.
Anything else you’d like people to know?
If you are interested in learning more about Top Box, give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org! We are constantly looking for more volunteers, for new funding sources, and for additional partners in our fight against food inequality and hunger.
Whole Foods Market’s Global Leadership Team convened in New Orleans this week for their annual gathering. They visited and toured the ReFresh site, and Liberty’s Kitchen’s Director Dave Emond had the opportunity to address the group of 200. Read his remarks below about the innovative partnership between Whole Foods Market (WFM) and its Broad Street store and Liberty’s Kitchen (LK) at the ReFresh Project.
Remarks to Whole Foods Market Leadership
March 10, 2015
New Orleans youth face a stark reality. Census data reveal that there are 30,000 New Orleans youth ages 16-24 who are disconnected from both work and school. The institutions that should be there to support them – education, criminal justice, and sometimes even the family unit – have broken down. Our city experienced 150 murders last year, the vast majority of which were young black males killing other young black males. The health picture is no better. Children in poverty are seven times more likely to be in worse health conditions. 46% of African American youth in New Orleans live in poverty vs. 15% of white children. Louisiana has the highest obesity rate in the nation, and one out of every three Louisiana children is likely to develop diabetes in their lifetime.
In response to these immense problems, Liberty’s Kitchen arose as an INTERVENTION for New Orleans vulnerable youth.
We exist to support and enable bright and healthy futures for EVERY young person, and we achieve our mission through two complementary programs.
Our YOUTH DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM is a yearlong intensive PERSONAL intervention. We serve 16-24 year olds who are disconnected from both school and work, equipping them with the skills, resources, and confidence to become employed, stable, and connected. Our youth report the following challenges:
- 70% report have experienced trauma or abuse
- 62% face chronic homelessness
- 39% are raising children
According to a study recently released by Loyola University, trafficking and exploitative labor among opportunity youth have reached epidemic status:
- 30% have been sex workers
- 14% have been victims of human trafficking
Our program includes four months of daily intensive services – life skills, supportive services, hospitality industry training, professional development, and job placement – followed by eight months of routine follow up with incentivized participation including biweekly skill reinforcement, continuing education, and advanced training. In our first five years we have served more than 350 young people. In our new home at ReFresh, we will double our capacity, serving up to 160 youth annually.
Our SCHOOL NUTRITION PROGRAM is a SUPPLY CHAIN intervention. We partner with New Orleans College Prep to ensure that their students are healthy and well-nourished. At the three schools where we work, 97% of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch and 95% are African American. We make everything from scratch, use no disposable products in the delivery of our food, and prepare everything on site at the schools, making the foodservice staff an important and valued member of the school community. The students in our schools are empowered in areas like menu development through taste testing and other initiatives aimed at getting them invested in in healthy food. This year we are feeding 1,300 students 3-4 meals per day, for a total of about 4,000 fresh, healthy meals served daily. Within three years, we will scale this program to reach twice as many students, preparing and serving more than 8,000 meals daily.
Every effective social enterprise owes its existence to a visionary founder, and I’m excited that we have our founder, Janet Davas with us today. Janet moved on from Liberty’s Kitchen last year, handing the reins to me as she launched a new venture to help people in other communities replicate our model and achieve other social enterprise goals.
One of Janet’s greatest achievements was engaging John Elstrott (Chairman) and Walter Robb (CEO) of Whole Foods, both of whom bought into her vision and have helped us build capacity through this incredible partnership. Today, Ernest Roy and the Broad Street Store Team are helping us turn thoughts into action to achieve measurable impact for a community in need. And for years, Kristina Bradford has gone above and beyond the call as a Liberty’s Kitchen board member, helping us at a critical point of growth. To borrow a phrase from Whole Foods’ founder, we truly believe this partnership is becoming a “win6” for all stakeholders, shining a light on the potential for meaningful social impact through innovative strategies.
What does WFM do for us?
- Hires graduates
- Provides externship opportunities for our students
- Gives us access to WFM supply chain at your prices
- Bulk Food production partnership – we are currently producing five items (three salad dressings, a gumbo base, and vegetarian redbeans) under the LK label for sale on WFM’s prepared foods bar. And we are preparing to launch cookies and brownies. These items generate steady, predictable revenue for LK as they also create training opportunities for our youth.
- In store tastings – to promote awareness of LK among WFM customers
- Store tour for YDP students – shopping on a budget
- Christmas tree giveaway
- Leftover flowers donated
- WFM team members to presentations/demonstrations – fish filleting, butchering, etc.
- Provide food for LK staff/student events
What does LK do for WFM?
- Provide entry level labor
- Supply high quality food items for sale at Broad Street Store
- Provide cold storage space for large quantity seasonal items like holiday pies
- Provide dining/kitchen space for WFM healthy eating and other community events
In addition to our partnership with Whole Foods, we have developed new partnerships with other ReFresh Project tenants like Tulane’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine. As a result of our collaboration we’ve also been introduced to other mission-aligned companies, like Swerve Sweetener, who are helping us make our menu healthier, provide nutrition instruction for our students, and engage our constituents more effectively.
Our revenue model is the envy of many in the not-for-profit sector, with our four business lines (café, catering, wholesale, and school nutrition) currently generating two-thirds of our $3.8M budget.
We will be opening a second retail location in partnership with the New Orleans Public Library and Broadmoor Improvement Association later this month, and we’re excited about the work we will continue to do with and on behalf of New Orleans youth.
At Liberty’s Kitchen we exist for one purpose and one purpose only – and that’s to change lives. By embracing our mission and helping us to advance it, Whole Foods is playing a critical role in fostering an opportunity revolution where EVERY child gets a chance to thrive.
An estimated 10,000 people passed through the doors of the ReFresh Project to enter the new Whole Foods Market during its first week of operation. As they walked in, they may have seen the newly hung Liberty’s Kitchen sign to the left – marking the entrance to our new space. They may even have heard the hum of construction as crews worked diligently on the Liberty’s Kitchen dining space and commissary kitchen.
When customers shopped in the bright and welcoming Whole Foods Market grocery store, they likely noticed many local references – from an express lane for “10ish items” to a wall of PEACE graffiti once on the building’s exterior. Another store component drawing acclaim is the gumbo bar with traditional sausage and vegetarian gumbo bases prepared by Liberty’s Kitchen. Liberty’s Kitchen is also producing salad dressings and bakery items for the store. Additionally, Whole Foods Market has decided to forgo a full service coffee bar and instead send customers next door to Liberty’s Kitchen for their cappuccinos.
Liberty’s Kitchen will open at the ReFresh Project in the summer of 2014. In the meantime, you can still eat our tasty MVB burger, giant fresh salads, and famous brownies in our current location at 422 ½ Broad Street near the corner of Broad and Tulane Avenue.