This Chef Serves Up a Future for Struggling Kids

When Carmen Rodriguez was two years old, his grandmother would put him in a makeshift baby carrier and take him into the fields as she picked produce. Growing up, he traveled from Chicago to Texas, North Dakota and California with his migrant farmworker family, picking melons, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and corn. The first meal he ever cooked was bean and cheese burritos, strapped to the radiator of the family car to keep them warm.

Rodriguez’s grandmother and great-grandmother.

His home base was a rough neighborhood in Chicago, and as the only boy in the family, there was no one to protect him from the gangs. When he was eight years old, a l4-year-old boy was being forced to jump into a Latin gang and, as a rite of passage, “had to beat the crap out of the first kid he saw. I was that kid,” Rodriguez says. His survival instincts kicked in, and instead he beat up the older kid. The gang recruited him that day. He ran away from home at 13 and lived on the streets of Chicago. He ran packages for the gang, broke into homes for the gang, robbed people on the street and sold drugs for the gang.
But after a dressing-down by the local police, he decided to get a job. He started washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, lying about his age. One day, one of the line cooks didn’t show for his shift. Rodriguez decided to help the line and “when the chef came into the kitchen and saw that I was on his line cooking his food, he grabbed the dish that I had just cooked, shrimp scampi, and launched the dish, bowl and all, against the furthest wall in the kitchen. Chef then grabbed me by the back of my neck and screamed in my face, ‘I pay you to wash fucking dishes, not fuck up my food!’
“When I told this to my gang friends, they wanted to burn down his restaurant. I think this is when it hit me that what I was doing with the gang was not going to get me anywhere, so I convinced them that it wasn’t worth our time. I returned to work the next day, and started cleaning and washing dishes. Chef got there and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Guess you’re not a punk.’ He took me under his wing and taught me all about the business of restaurants. Chef passed away five years ago, and I learned that he had tasted my shrimp scampi, and that’s how he knew that I was not a punk.”
Rodriguez worked his way up from line cook to kitchen manager to sous chef to executive chef. His credits include some of the top restaurants in Santa Barbara, Tampa, Palm Springs, and Santa Fe, where he now lives. In 2012, he was named the New Mexico Chef of the Year, awarded by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
Two years ago, Rodriguez was contacted by Labor Of Love, which promotes and celebrates the 50,000 largely invisible and unrecognized migrant farmworkers in Yuma, Arizona, by performing “random acts of kindness” like delivering boxes with Thanksgiving dinner and supplying them with blankets and cushions. As Rodriguez delivered 500 gourmet meals to the farmworkers, “the memories of when I was a young boy working in the fields started to creep back into my mind,” he says. “I saw my grandparents sitting around on their breaks and talking about the food we were picking, and how one day we’d be out of work. Then I heard my grandfather say eso nunca va pasar: “Our people will always be in the fields.” The past suddenly slammed into the present and the future, and I knew that I had to give back, to help kids who were lost and troubled and in survival mode like I had been.”
Chef Rodriguez in the kitchen.
Chef Rodriguez in the kitchen.

Back in Santa Fe, he and his wife, Penny, had worked tangentially with YouthWorks, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit for at-risk kids. Last year, Rodriguez sat down with Melynn Schuyler, YouthWorks’ executive director, to discuss a brewing crisis: 1,500 young people turn l9 in Santa Fe every year, and over 40 percent of them never graduate from high school, making it difficult for them to land regular employment. Because of the high price of rentals, thousands of them are effectively homeless.
Schuyler had a dream for the future of the YouthWorks Culinary Program, and Rodriguez was the dream person to run it. Rodriguez immediately agreed to the job, knowing how education and positive encouragement can improve young lives. “I have seen immediate satisfaction in my customers,” Rodriguez says. “But to see a young person who has had so many problems in his or her life, be able to look you in the eye and speak to you with confidence and respect, is more satisfying that any comment I have received about my food from a guest.”
The Culinary Program has launched a wildly successful food truck. With Rodriguez and his wife at the helm, they serve up affordable and delicious dishes like charred brussels sprouts tossed in spicy Korean barbecue sauce ($7), with a $2 add-on of achiote pineapple chicken. For sweets, customers love the Pig Newtons –– two graham cracker biscuits filled with spicy pork-belly candy, bacon and fig jam ($6). And the YouthWorks Catering Service is cooking at public and private events for high-profile clients like the American Institute of Architects, the Mayor of Santa Fe, the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum and the Nation of Makers Conference.  
It isn’t always easy when kids are having problems and don’t show up for work. “My job is wrangling sabertooth kittens!” Penny jokes. But the satisfaction outweighs the tough stuff. Kids who are successful in the program are getting placed in local restaurants.
YouthWorks apprentices at an event with Chef Rodriguez.
YouthWorks apprentices at an event with Chef Rodriguez.

Erin, one of Culinary Program’s young apprentices, says it’s the most fun job she has ever had. “Everyone wants to be bettering their personal situation, and I’m working with some of the hardest-working people I know.” she says. And Jackie, a former student who is now a sous chef at YouthWorks, says, “Working with YouthWorks and chef Carmen in the kitchen has brought a new purpose to my life. Teaching and learning how to cook and put on events has opened my eyes to the bigger need of food and food service in my community. When I watch the crew in action, it makes me proud and you can see them also being proud of themselves.”  
Rodriguez recently placed another YouthWorks alum, Joe, in a friend’s restaurant as a pantry cook. A month later, Joe called him to say that the owner was so impressed with his skills that he was promoting him to the hot line. “In my toughest chef voice that I could muster, I told Joe, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ and he answered ‘Yes, chef.’ I had to pull over and wipe tears of pride from my eyes. I knew how the Italian chef had felt when he tasted my shrimp scampi.”

Fighting Food Waste, One Sector at a Time

America is one of the largest offenders of food waste in the world, according to a recent survey. Every year, roughly 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown out worldwide, a considerable problem given that agriculture contributes about 22 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and 12.7 million people go hungry in America alone. Entrepreneurs across several sectors have created ways to repurpose food. Their efforts are admirable and economical, but the biggest difference will be if you make food waste reduction a daily habit.

Recovered food from the University of Denver Food Recovery Network chapter.

On College Campuses

On average, a student who lives in university housing throws out 141 pounds of food per year. Multiply that by the number of residential colleges around the country, and it becomes a huge problem, says Regina Northouse, executive director for the Food Recovery Network, the only nonprofit dealing specifically with campus food waste.
WATCH: How Much Food Could Be Rescued If College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers?
Northouse’s group reduces waste by enlisting the help of student volunteers at 226 universities. This manpower shuttles still-edible food from dining halls that would otherwise be thrown out to local nonprofits fighting hunger. Northouse estimates that since 2011, Food Recovery Network has fed 150,000 food-insecure people.

Through the box-subscription company Hungry Harvest, farmers sell “ugly food” to consumers instead of tossing the unsightly produce out.

On Farms

If a carrot isn’t quite orange enough, odds are it’ll be tossed. Blemishes and unattractive produce make up nearly 40 percent of discarded food, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though some unused fruits and veggies can be sent to food manufacturers, farmers lose profits from about a quarter of their crops because of cosmetic imperfections. To put money back into their pockets, box subscriptions services, such as Hungry Harvest, have found their way into the ugly food market.
“We started out with 10 customers at a stand,” says Stacy Carroll, director of partnerships for Hungry Harvest. “We now have thousands of customers every week buying thousands of pounds of food that would, in the past, have been thrown away.”
Roughly 10,000 subscribers along the East Coast receive weekly boxes of recovered produce from the Baltimore-based company (which was started by the founders of Food Recovery Network). In addition, food insecure families who use SNAP benefits can purchase boxes at 10 Hungry Harvest sites. All in all, the organization redistributes between 60,000 and 80,000 pounds of food through its subscription service each week.

MealConnect provides a platform for retailers to redistribute unsold produce to those in need.

At Food Retailers

For merchants, food wasted is also money wasted. Across the U.S., the cost of tossing food runs upward of $165 billion annually.
MealConnect, a tech platform launched in April by Feeding America (a nationwide network of food banks), allows retailers to post surplus meals and unused produce on its app, which then notifies local food banks workers to pick it up and redistribute it to those in need. The company has recovered 333 million pounds of food by working with large retailers like Walmart and Starbucks. MealConnect also allows merchants to recoup some of their outlays (via tax deductions).

Chef Dan Barber’s wastED pop-ups challenged chefs to create innovate dishes using produce that otherwise would have been thrown out.

In Restaurants

In 2015, the aptly named food popup wastED found itself in the heart of a media frenzy because of what was on the menu: trashed food. 
Since then, a handful of other restaurants in urban areas across the world have used recovered produce in their meals.
“We’re offering our cooks the opportunity to be creative and come up with menus instead,” says Brooklyn, N.Y., chef Przemek Adolf, owner of Saucy By Nature, which uses leftovers from previous catering events to create daily lunch and dinner specials.

The USDA’s FoodKeeper app educates consumers on how to extend the shelf life of stored foods.

In Your Own Kitchen

Individual families throw away nearly $1,600 worth of food per year, according to the EPA, which has spurred the federal government to step in and help.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the app FoodKeeper, which informs consumers on how long an apple can last in the fridge, for example, and proper food storage techniques to extend shelf life. It also sends out reminder alerts to use up food that’s in danger of spoiling. The desired outcome? People changing their behaviors, ultimately buying less and consuming what they do purchase.

6 High-Tech Innovations That Could Solve Our Food-Waste Woes

Americans can be a wasteful bunch. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that our country threw away 38 million tons of food, the equivalent of every person in the country junking two-thirds of a pound every day. We dumped milk that had spoiled, vegetables that had turned brown and hamburger patties we were too full to eat. Not only did this excess cost us a collective $161 billion, it caused unnecessary environmental strain. Food waste, after all, is the most common material in landfills and incinerators, constituting 21.6 percent of all solid waste, according to the U.S.D.A. To fix the problem, there are some easy strategies each household should adopt (hint: buy less, freeze more, compost). But there are also some high-tech innovations that could revamp the entire food supply. Below, the most promising efforts at reducing waste, from the time food is first harvested all the way to its final destination in a Dumpster.

1. Diverting Unwanted Food

Because of the government’s health and safety regulations, supply counts or simply cosmetic issues, a warehouse manager might reject a food shipment before it even makes it to the retail stand. The app Food Cowboy redirects this ugly or unwanted surplus to food banks. A truck driver simply programs her route into the mobile app, along with what’s on offer, like a pallet of bruised bananas or knobby carrots. By the time she’s ready to hit the road, the driver might receive a message from a charity who will meet her at a rest stop to take the produce. The soup kitchen gets their week’s supply of produce, and the distributor can take a tax deduction for the donation: a win-win.

Recipients at a food bank in New York City pack up their groceries.

2. Rethinking Plastic Packaging

Beyond the tons of food that Americans discard, there’s also the problem of all the packaging in which it’s wrapped: the egg cartons, salsa jars and snack wrappers, not to mention shopping bags. Scientists at the U.S.D.A. are trying to replace the ubiquitous plastic in grocery aisles with a mixture of casein, an edible milk protein, and pectin, a citrus extract often used to thicken jams. As long as it’s kept dry, the biodegradable film is actually 250 times better than plastic at blocking oxygen, which helps prevent food from going stale. And, because it’s edible, a consumer could plunk the whole package into water for an extra protein boost. “Everything is in smaller and smaller packaging, which is great for grabbing for lunch [or] for school, but then it generates so much waste,” Laetitia Bonnaillie, a U.S.D.A. researcher who co-led the research, tells Bloomberg. “Edible packaging can be great for that.”

3. Looking Beyond the Sell-By Date

We tend to throw out massive quantities of food because it spoils before we can eat it. Or, more accurately, because we worry that it has. Often, though, food is perfectly safe to eat after the sell-by date, but a home cook won’t want to take the risk of poisoning his family. The FoodKeeper App, a collaboration by the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and Cornell University, provides guidelines online about whether an ingredient has spoiled and how long it can be kept in a pantry, refrigerator or freezer. So far, the database contains over 400 different food and beverage items.

If that’s not technical enough to determine whether food’s still safe to eat, M.I.T. scientists have another device: chemically actuated resonant devices (or more simply, CARDs), which can tell if food has gone bad by the gases it releases. “The beauty of these sensors is that they are really cheap. You put them up, they sit there, and then you come around and read them [with a smartphone]. There’s no wiring involved. There’s no power,” says Timothy Swager, the chemistry professor whose lab built gas-detecting sensors. Pretty soon, this “smart packaging” could do a more reliable job than the old trick of taking a whiff.

Many Americans toss out produce because it’s browning or otherwise looks unsavory, even when it’s still safe to eat.

4. Bypassing the Landfill

Only 5.1 percent of the food Americans currently trash is diverted; the rest ends up in the dump. Over time, this refuse releases clouds of pollutants into the atmosphere: either smoky emissions as it burns in an incinerator or methane, a gas that’s 28 times more dangerous for global warming than carbon dioxide, as it decomposes in a landfill. To reduce the burden on dumps, a device known as the Eco-Safe Digester, produced by BioHiTech for commercial kitchens like The Cheesecake Factory and those inside Marriott hotels, can divert up to 2,500 pounds of waste elsewhere daily. Liquefied by hungry microorganisms, a sloshing smoothie of leftovers goes down the drain, reducing the burden on dumps. That is, as long as the municipal sewers can handle the extra wastewater.

5. Cutting Back in Commercial Kitchens

As chefs rush to meet diners’ demands, some waste is expected. For many restaurants and dining halls, the thinking goes that it’s better to have a surplus of entrées ready than to run out halfway through dinner. But what if these establishments are consistently overdoing it? LeanPath, an Oregon-based software company, analyzes what’s being trashed in commercial kitchens and creates actionable steps for managers, cooks and servers to reduce waste. “Our business is about culture and shaping behavior,” Andrew Shakman, the co-founder, tells Bloomberg. “It’s not rocket science to figure out how to make less mashed potatoes. It is hard to identify that it’s mashed potatoes [that are overproduced] and to change behavior.” After staff has inputted a night’s worth of waste, the algorithm might recommend eliminating the rhubarb no one ever orders, peeling less skin off the potatoes or adding one less bread roll in the basket. By following its advice, LeanPath estimates it can save up to 6 percent of a kitchen’s food costs.

Food scraps from The Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco make their way to the compost bin.

6. Designing a Smarter Dumpster

Of course, some food will always make its way to the rubbish heap. And when it does, we might as well have garbage trucks pick it up in the most efficient way possible. Compology, a San Francisco waste-management startup, installs sensors on dumpsters to gauge volume. As the bins fill to capacity, an algorithm plans drivers’ most efficient route, eliminating the stop-and-go emissions from weekly garbage collection. The more infrequent pickups can also save haulers tons of cash, up to 40 percent of collection costs, according to the co-founders’ reports from Santa Cruz, Calif., where sensors already been installed.
Continue reading “6 High-Tech Innovations That Could Solve Our Food-Waste Woes”

10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016

The most contentious presidential election in modern history offered Americans abundant reasons to shut off the news. But if they looked past the front page’s daily jaw-droppers, our countrymen would see that there’s plenty of inspiring work being done. At NationSwell, we strive to find the nonprofit directors, the social entrepreneurs and the government officials testing new ways to solve America’s most intractable problems. In our reporting this year, we’ve found there’s no shortage of good being done. Here’s a look at our favorite solutions from 2016.

This Woman Has Collected 40,000 Feminine Products to Boost the Self-Esteem of Homeless Women
Already struggling to afford basic necessities, homeless women often forgo bras and menstrual hygiene products. Dana Marlowe, a mother of two in the Washington, D.C., area, restored these ladies’ dignity by distributing over 40,000 feminine products to the homeless before NationSwell met her in February. Since then, her organization Support the Girls has given out 212,000 more.
Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America
Joseph McGill, a Civil War re-enactor and history consultant for Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina, believes we must not forget the history of slavery and its lasting impact to date. To remind us, he’s slept overnight in 80 dilapidated cabins — sometimes bringing along groups of people interested in the experience — that once held the enslaved.

This Is How You End the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline
Abandoned by an abusive dad and a mentally ill mom, Pamela Bolnick was placed into foster care at 6 years old. For a time, the system worked — that is, until she “aged out” of it. Bolnick sought help from First Place for Youth, an East Bay nonprofit that provides security deposits for emancipated children to transition into stable housing.

Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change if One Cooked and Served You Dinner?
Café Momentum, one of Dallas’s most popular restaurants, is staffed by formerly incarcerated young men without prior culinary experience. Owner Chad Houser says the kitchen jobs have almost entirely eliminated recidivism among his restaurant’s ranks.

This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Nearly three decades before Rolling Stone published its incendiary (and factually inaccurate) description of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, a gang rape occurred at the University of New Hampshire in 1987. Choosing the right ways to respond to the crisis, the public college has since become the undisputed leader in ending sex crimes on campus.

This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown
Once a commercial fisherman, Bren Smith now employs a more sustainable way to draw food from the ocean. Underwater, near Thimble Island, Conn., he’s grown a vertical farm, layered with kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters.

This Former Inmate Fights for Others’ Freedom from Life Sentences
Jason Hernandez was never supposed to leave prison. At age 21, a federal judge sentenced him to life for selling crack cocaine in McKinney, Texas — Hernandez’s first criminal offense. After President Obama granted him clemency in 2013, he’s advocated on behalf of those still behind bars for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.

Eliminating Food Waste, One Sandwich (and App) at a Time
In 2012, Raj Karmani, a Pakistani immigrant studying computer science at the University of Illinois, built an app to redistribute leftover food to local nonprofits. So far, the nonprofit Zero Percent has delivered 1 million meals from restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets to Chicago’s needy. In recognition of his work, Karmani was awarded a $10,000 grant as part of NationSwell’s and Comcast NBCUniversal’s AllStars program.

Baltimore Explores a Bold Solution to Fight Heroin Addiction
Last year, someone in Baltimore died from an overdose every day: 393 in total, more than the number killed by guns. Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s tireless public health commissioner, issued a blanket prescription for naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, to every citizen — the first step in her ambitious plan to wean 20,000 residents off heroin.

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project
Up until 1974, a streetcar made daily trips from El Paso, Texas, across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juárez. Recently, a public art project depicting fake ads for the trolley inspired locals to call for the line’s comeback, and the artist behind the poster campaign now sits on the city council.

Continue reading “10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016”

Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change if One Cooked and Served You Dinner?

In the far southern outskirts of Dallas County, Chad Houser pulled off the I-45 highway, drove onto a dead-end road leading to several shooting ranges and made a quick right turn to his final destination: the Dallas County Youth Village, a non-secure juvenile detention facility for 10-to-17-year-old boys. Stepping out of his car, Houser, a chef at the acclaimed Dallas bistro Parigi, noticed a putrid stench rising from the nearby landfill and water treatment plant. He grabbed a bundle of fruits and herbs from his car and strode into the compound, where he planned to teach a class on making ice cream.
The whole ride over, Houser fretted about the disrespect and back talk he was about to endure, and he steeled himself as he signed in. But when he arrived in the kitchen, none of the eight boys were the tattooed toughs he’d expected. “I had stereotyped them before I even met them,” Houser recalls. “All eight looked at me when they spoke. They said, ‘Please,’ ‘Sir,’ and ‘Thank you.’” They all listened closely, he adds, eager for “a first-time feeling” of crafting something they could take pride in and savor.
After class, Houser hosted the kids at Dallas’s central farmers market, where all their ice cream flavors were entered into a competition. One of the boys took home first place and the $100 prize, beating out culinary students and trained professionals. The young man ran up to Houser and told him, “I just love to make food and give it to people and put a smile on their face.” “Wow,” Houser thought, amazed at this teen’s desire to use food to give joy to others. The young man continued, “When I get out of detention, I’m going to get a job in a restaurant.” But he had one question for which he wanted Houser’s input: “Sir, where do you think I should work?” Fast food like Wendy’s or casual dining like Chili’s? he asked. Houser paused before saying, “Sir, I think you should work for whomever hires you first.”
That exchange occurred in 2007, and Houser pondered it for more than a year, feeling helpless at first, then angry at the lack of opportunities for the young men trying to leave their mistakes behind. One night in 2009, as he was closing up Parigi after dinner service, he told his business partner he felt dishonest. A year had passed, and the boys at the Youth Village weren’t any better off. He felt like he’d broken a promise. “I just want to open a restaurant and let these kids run it,” he confessed. He wanted a place where kids were could learn “more than how to cook.” He wanted them to gain life skills like personal responsibility, social skills and financial management. “I wanted them to be exposed to things they had never been exposed to,” Houser says. When his partner told him it sounded like a pretty good idea, he devoted all his energy to making the establishment a reality.

Chad Houser wanted a place where kids were “learning more than how to cook.”

In 2011, Houser hosted his first pop-up dinner cooked by former juvenile offenders, a long awaited-moment where he “put knives and fire in front of these kids.” Within 15 minutes of prep, the fish he’d ordered was ruined and the smoke alarms were sounding. The staff recovered, and at the end of service, each one of the patrons shook Houser’s hand or gave him a hug and mentioned how closely the young workers resembled their own children. By late 2012, these 50-seat dinners, where proceeds went towards the boys’ wages and a mentoring program, were selling out within minutes, and Houser sold off his ownership in Parigi to pursue opening a restaurant that would employ young ex-offenders full-time. Café Momentum, which can host 150 diners nightly, opened in January 2015 with a baguette-cutting ceremony. This month, nine formerly incarcerated young men became the first to graduate from its first yearlong training program.
For almost all of them, the world of fine dining is an eye-opening experience. For one, there’s some sticker-shock that comes with glancing at the menu: a family ordering three mains (wagyu beef, $26; pork chops, $26; seared scallops, $23) spends as much in an hour as the employees earn in a full day’s work. But the more lasting impression is the taste of cuisine the boys never knew existed.
An appetizer prepared at Bolsa, a Chad Houser pop up restaurant from 2012.

“Most kids come from parts of town that are federally recognized food deserts, which means they don’t have access to grocery stores. These kids literally think that raspberry is a flavor of candy. They’ve never tasted it fresh,” Houser says. “And if raspberry was foreign, imagine having them smell fresh tarragon. It’s absolutely mind-blowing.”
That exposure to luxury may be foreign to these young ex-convicts, but Houser assures them that they deserve to be there. In addition to paying a $10 hourly wage (more than the state’s $7.25 minimum) over the 12-month post-release internship, Café Momentum offers intensive social services, including identifying permanent housing, medical attention, parenting classes and other case management. With those obstacles taken care of, Houser believes he’ll see the young men rise to the demanding expectations he set, which includes making everything from scratch — from the vinegars to the goat cheese. Even the bacon and pork chops are butchered from a whole pig, cut right from the whole animal in the kitchen. As the young men pick up various techniques, they also learn how to glean as much as they can from produce. Take a beet: it can be diced and cooked with coffee grounds, its root grounded up into a sugary powder or its leaves can be fermented into kimchi.
From the very first pop-up dinner, Houser realized that large receipts and fabulous food were well and good, but the most important aspect of dinner service would be breaking down stereotypes, in exactly the same way his conception of juvenile offenders was shattered the first time he met any. And that process, he adds, needs to happen on both sides of the table. Diners need to see that, with some support, these young men aren’t career criminals, and the workers need to see that the rest of the city wants them to succeed. In a city that has a long history of racial segregation, interaction between these two groups of people is rare outside the dining room. Yet, in the ritual of a multi-course meal, a bond is forged between the wait staff and customers and barriers come down.
For the young men in the program, however, needs are more immediate. Two interns working in the kitchen recently took a break from prep work to talk with NationSwell. They said the program’s most significant benefit was a stable income — something that’s hard to come by for most ex-offenders. “As long as I got money in my pocket, I don’t got no worries. That’s been the hardest thing, to even have a dollar in my pocket,” says Raymon, a 19-year-old who lives with his mom and four siblings. He politely declines to talk about why he ended up in jail in the first place: “Different person” was all he would say of his past. Today, he’s staffing the pastry station at Café Momentum. He doesn’t eat a lot of the restaurant’s food himself (“I’m really a burger type of person”), but he enjoys being around other employees who’ve gone through “the struggle.” To him, his boss, Houser, is “a cool dude,” he states. “He’s trying to make sure I stay out of trouble.”
So far, of the 150 youth who staffed the restaurant over the past 14 months, only five went back to jail (two because of a prior charge), Houser reports. That low recidivism rate is unheard of in Texas where 71.1 percent of juveniles are rearrested and 25.5 percent are reincarcerated within three years, according to state data. (Among the 172 kids who staffed Houser’s pop-up dinners and didn’t receive the same intensive social services, a slightly higher 11 percent were reincarcerated, still about half the state average.)
That’s not to say that getting a job at Café Momentum fixes all the problems. After release, the interns are usually living in the same neighborhoods, where they committed their first crime. Jose, 18, another intern living with his mom in West Dallas, started work in February, but says he faces a constant temptation to slip back into his old ways whenever he isn’t working. (When his friends seem interested in causing trouble, he tells them he has to go home.)
Houser says that self-doubt is common after the first few months of working in the program. Akin to the sophomore slump, the high of a brand new job has worn off, and the young men often begin to question whether the program is all it claims to be. “They’ve used to being deceived. They’re used to people overpromising and underdelivering,” he says. Once that phase ends, the boys become self-sufficient, Houser adds.
Chad Houser speaks to a restaurant full of family, friends and long-time supporters during Cafe Momentum’s inaugural graduation ceremony held April 3, 2016.

It’s important to note that Houser has taken a key first step in employing these young men during that difficult year of post-release, but it remains to be seen whether their experience cooking at Café Momentum translates into long-term employment. When Jose finishes the internship, he is planning to look for a job in a hotel. Raymon is saving up for a place of his own. For his next job, he knows he’s a “good waiter” or “servant.” (He struggles to pick the right word, one without racial overtones.) But he also says, “That’s not a dream job.” At night, he thinks about being a cardiologist. Only time will tell whether the recidivism rates stay low for the entire three-year period over which they’re normally measured.
In talking with the boys, however, Houser believes that even the most hardened of the bunch seem to benefit from working at Café Momentum. The boys who were thrown back into jail for a second offense have all written Houser letters, explaining where they “tripped up” and how motivated they are not to return to jail a third time, he says. And earlier this month, a boy Houser thought would never make it through the program graduated with the first class. Twelve months ago, Houser helped him off the streets and into stable housing. He made sure the young man had groceries and money to get to work. But for much of the first month, the employee wouldn’t show and didn’t call to explain why; when he did arrive, he was either stoned or defiant, Houser recalls. As the months went on, he grew more dependable. But there were still slip-ups, like the time he asked Houser for help after he got his girlfriend pregnant. A few days before graduation, the boy pulled Houser aside and asked if they could have another talk. From experience, Houser expected the teen was back in hot water.
“What’s going on?” Houser asked.
“Well, the boy said. “I want to give you a hug.”
“Okay,” Houser answered, unsure where this was leading.
“You’ve changed my life,” the boy said. “I’m serious.” He went on, “Last year, I knew I was going to prison, so I was preparing myself to go.” He confessed to Houser that, shortly after his release from juvie, he sold as many drugs as he could to ensure his mother’s finances would be sound, and he made gang connections to ensure he’d be protected once he was back in the slammer — a return he once believed was imminent. “But, you know, I’m never going to go to prison,” the boy said. “I’m not. I’m going to succeed, and I just wanted to say thank you.”
For these young men, life once looked like a series of lockups. But as Houser’s argued and as the graduates are now making clear, working in the kitchens of Café Momentum has given these young men a taste of a better future.

Here’s How a No-Tipping Policy Actually Allows Workers to Earn a Fair Wage

Could this be the tipping point?
Bar Marco, a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pa., has followed the footsteps of eateries in New York, San Francisco and Kentucky and has done away with tips.
Starting April 1, all employees will receive a $35,000 salary, health benefits as well as shares in the business, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. Staff will work a maximum of 40 to 44 hours a week, have 10 paid vacation days and get two days and one night off a week. Any tips that are left to the servers will go to charity.
The average tipped worker is notoriously low paid. For example, the base rate for tipped workers in Pennsylvania can be as low as $2.83 an hour. And a report from the White House says that the average hourly wages for workers in occupations where tipping is widespread (i.e. servers, hospitality industry, taxi drivers) are nearly 40 percent lower than overall average hourly wages. These workers are also twice as likely to experience poverty, with servers almost three times as likely to be in poverty.
Tips can also vary drastically between servers. According to a Freakonomics podcast, studies show that “blonde, attractive, slender, large-breasted waitresses in their 30s” consistently receive more gratuity than servers who are a different race or look different.
The biggest opponents of tipping also wonder why it’s up to diners to make up for a waiter or waitress’ meager paycheck — especially since the custom is practically unheard of in most countries. “Why is it our responsibility to pay the restaurant’s employees humanely?” says comedian Adam Conover in a recent video from College Humor (see below). “Why don’t they just pay [servers] a normal amount of money, and make the food more expensive?”
MORE: Meet the Restauranteur Who Pays Her Employees a True Living Wage
The announcement of Bar Marco’s wage change has been widely praised since the story broke (and led to a flood in job applications). Critics have argued that the staff is actually getting shortchanged since it’s possible they could earn more if they received tips. But kitchen worker Csilla Thackray worked out that the change means an additional $400 a month in her pocket. “It’s a huge increase,” she says to Business Insider. “It means that I no longer have to live with that constant fear of running out of money.”
To make up for the salary hike, diners at Bar Marco can expect some higher prices on the menu, and its 10-seat wine room will go from two seatings a night to open reservations, according to the Post-Gazette. CNN reports that the business will also save money by buying whole animals instead of individual cuts and make their own sausages and pickled vegetables.
“We’ve done a year’s worth of homework for this,” co-owner Bobby Fry tells the Pittsburgh CityPaper of his three-year-old restaurant. “Our greatest risk is that we do not take care of the people who make Bar Marco so special.”
For restaurants that can afford to put more money into wages, it seems like a noble model to follow. As it turns out, perhaps the best tip is no tip at all.

This Bakery Offers More Than Muffins; It Gives Veterans a New Career Path

Step inside the new Dog Tag Bakery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and your nose might tell you it’s just a place to buy some delicious scones, muffins and bread. But while it does sell freshly-baked goods, the bakery’s actual mission is to train wounded veterans how run a small business.
Ten wounded veterans comprise Dog Tag Bakery’s initial class of “fellows,” who take classes in baking, business management, marketing, inventory and more; the former soldiers work 15 hours a week in the bakery to gain hands-on business experience. Bakery general manager Justin Ford tells WTOP, “The bakery is a conduit to teach our fellows small business management.”
Phil Cassidy, board chair of Dog Tag Inc., adds, “At the end of the six month period, ideally, they’ve learned the skills to get on with their lives.”
Dog Tag Inc. has partnered with the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies to allow the vets to earn a certificate of business administration through the program.
Rebecca Sheir of WAMU spoke to some of the veterans participating in the program. Maurice Jones spent 22 years in the Army, working in I.T. and telecommunications before he was injured. He tells WAMU, “I want to start my own I.T. consulting firm,” and says of Dog Tag Bakery, “They treat us like adults, professionals. They don’t look at our disability as a hindrance or a disability at all. They’re looking to provide us with the skills and knowledge to progress and succeed in any endeavor we’ve got going on.”
MORE: For These Vets, There’s Solace in the Simple Act of Making Bread

Drinking Beer is Making the World a Better Place

Who says changing the world can’t be fun?
The Oregon Public House in Portland — aka the “world’s first nonprofit pub” — donates 100 percent of profits to charity, the Good News Network reports.
We’re not kidding. Choose whatever food or drink you’d like, then pick which charity you want your dollars to go to from the menu’s revolving list of organizations, such as United Cerebral Palsy, local youth outreach program Braking Cycles and more.
According to The Oregonion, every last penny is donated to the charities. And they’re willing to prove it to you: The establishment keeps their books open to the public to anyone who cares to look.
Yelp reviewers are overwhelmingly positive, praising the restaurant’s friendly atmosphere as well as the “great beer, food and charity menu.”
So how much dough has been raised? This past August, the restaurant posted a photo boasting that an incredible $32,021 has been collected for charity.
MORE: The Restaurant Without a Cash Register
Opening a pub is no easy task — especially one that doesn’t keep any of its profits. The Oregonion described that construction took more than three years and required about $100,000 in fundraising, as well as roughly $150,000 in donated materials and labor.
“It has taken thousands of hours, hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteers to make this what it is,” owner Ryan Saari tells FOX12, adding that the pub opened debt free with the help of its donors and volunteers.
The pub is run by a board made up entirely of volunteers (all of which have full-time jobs) as well as a few full-time employees who work and run the restaurant. “No one. Literally no one is ‘making money’ off this idea or our business,” the pub says. “This is a profit-generating machine for, and only for, the charities we support.”
It’s a ground-breaking model that restaurants chains and corporations should take note of. As the pub says, “We believe this could begin a new wave of business and mission that has the possibility of changing the way we work, spend, and care for our communities.”
Now that’s something to get buzzed about.
DON’T MISS: Helping Veterans Is As Easy As Drinking This Beer. Seriously.

This App Helps Reduce Food Waste

Americans waste up to 30 to 40 percent of food, an excess of up to $165 billion a year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Which is why a New York app developer is launching an app to help restaurants and grocery stores find customers who might pay for discounted food before it’s thrown away.

PareUp is an online platform that allows food vendors to list excess items at a reduced price, which is often food they’re unable to donate because of regulations or the items don’t meet the minimum bulk requirement for food banks or shelters.

“We want to change the cultural conversation around what it means to consume food and the life cycle of food,” co-founder Margaret Tung said. “Because we’re throwing out a lot more than needs to be.”

Tung, along with Jason Chen and Anuj Jhunjhunwala, created the app to both benefit retailers and consumers. Users can check in on available inventory each day and head to the store to purchase it. PareUp plans to take a small percentage of each transaction.

“A lot of people in food tech today are looking at production, consumption and distribution with all these delivery apps getting funding and attention like Grubhub,” Tung said. “We wanted to look at where people are not really spending that much energy … the next frontier to explore.”

Currently, the app is only available for food shoppers in New York City, but the startup is aiming to launch in Chicago, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. as well. The company has also received inquiries from retailers in London, Sydney and Toronto, too.

But for now, the biggest hurdle facing PareUp is changing the way in which people think of leftover food, according to Tung. Food that otherwise is headed toward the dumpster is not exactly appetizing.

The company is also hoping to launch a version for food banks or shelters, bridging the gap between nonprofits and food retailers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Though PareUp isn’t a silver bullet for food waste, it’s a step in the right direction to help retailers unload unused food and support nonprofit efforts.

“[We’re] just trying to pick up where they leave off,” said Tung said of food banks and shelters. “And even still the numbers are pretty huge. The market has enough room for everyone, at least right now.”

MORE: Food Cowboy: Teaching Truck Drivers ‘Nothing Goes to Waste’

Helping Homeless Veterans Is on This Cafe’s Menu

When you order a plate of barbecue ribs, yams and collard greens at Veterans Cafe and Grill in Merrillville, Ind., it comes with a side of veterans’ assistance.
That’s right. Every purchase at the cafe supports not just the veteran employees that work there, but homeless vets, too.
Bessie Hitchcock, the co-owner of the restaurant, is also the director of operations for Veterans Life Changing Services, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing to homeless soldiers, in nearby Gary. She told Karen Caffarini of the Post-Tribune, “A portion of the proceeds generated by the restaurant are used to assist homeless veterans.”
Decorated in red, white and blue, the Veterans Cafe and Grill opened its doors in May, serving up items such as Master Sergeant’s Breakfast and Captain’s Breakfast.
The cafe’s co-owner, Marine Corps veteran Brian Cody, can relate to the service members that the restaurant helps. Three years ago, he sought assistance from Veterans Life Changing Services when he was homeless, and his health was deteriorating due to an injury. “I didn’t think I could walk again,” he told Chas Reilly of NWI Times. He began working as a caterer, and eventually hatched the plan with Hitchcock to open a vet-themed restaurant.
In addition to being one of the cooks at the Veterans Cafe, Cody also mentors other veterans in culinary skills so that they can find jobs in his restaurant and other eateries.
Terrell Junigan, an Army Reservist and Indiana University Northwest business student, also works at the cafe. “It’s hard for some veterans to find work here because of the economy and the area we live in,” he told Caffarini. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of jobs here, and the ones that are here, it’s kind of who you know to get them.”
But with this restaurant, it’s not who you know — but what you are and the country that you served that can land you a job.
MORE: At This Café in South Carolina, Vets Find A Safe Haven