Feeding Possibility: Reconnecting Opportunity Youth through Foodservice Social Enterprise

Natalie Reitz, Catalyst Kitchens

Completing secondary or post-secondary education and entering the workforce are major milestones in young peoples’ lives. However, finishing school or finding a job can be a challenge for teens and young adults for a variety of reasons, causing some to not participate in either school or in the workforce. 16-24 year olds not enrolled in school or without jobs are classified as opportunity youth. In 2013, The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University reported than an estimated 13.8 percent of 16-24 year olds were disconnected from both school and work in the United States, noting that the number of opportunity youth tends to mirror greater unemployment rates. The amount of opportunity youth varies significantly throughout the nation, with numbers as low as just under ten percent or as high as 20 percent or more in some cities.

Students at CK Model Member Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans, LA

Compared to the average 16-24 year old, the Tulane study identified opportunity youth as “generally [having] less formal education, [and being] less likely to have health insurance, less likely to have been recently employed, more likely to have children, and more likely to have a disability.” The Tulane study also identified opportunity youth as being more likely to be African-American or Hispanic and more likely to be men. The study “The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth” identified many different reasons that opportunity youth have become disconnected, including dropping out of high school or college, being unable to find a job, experiencing homelessness, involvement with the criminal justice system, inhibiting mental or health conditions, or other responsibilities that prevent them from entering the workforce. It is evident that many factors can lead to the disconnection of opportunity youth. However as noted in the article “Achieving Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth,” a lack of access to resources, especially in marginalized communities, can leave at-risk youth with “few obvious paths forward” as compared to their more privileged peers.

The burden of being disconnected affects not only opportunity youth, but taxpayers and the economy. In the report “National Roadmap for Opportunity Youth” by Civic Enterprises, opportunity youth were found to have cost taxpayers $93 billion in lost revenues and increased social services in 2011. This was in addition to societal costs beyond taxpayer burden, including earnings lost and loss to victims of crime, which reached $252 billion in the same year. Over the lifetime of one grouping of opportunity youth, the cost to taxpayers is estimated to equal $1.6 trillion and the cost to society is $4.7 trillion.

The good news is that the vast majority of opportunity youth want to reconnect with job and educational opportunities. 73 percent of youth surveyed for the Civic Enterprises study said they were very “confident or hopeful that they will be able to achieve their goals in life, including continuing their education and getting a good job.” There are many different factors that will help youth get jobs. Civic Enterprises provided a Roadmap for Action in their study, which was informed by an advisory committee of opportunity youth and members of the Opportunity Nation Coalition. They recommend efforts to:

“increase pathways to secondary and postsecondary success for out-of-school youth; meaningfully engage employers as part of the solution; improve opportunities for community collaboration and collective impact; strengthen connections to community through service and mentorship; invest in successful federal programs for opportunity youth; reauthorize and reform critical education and workforce legislation; and improve data collection and quality and ensure accountability”.

Foodservice social enterprise programs have the ability to encompass many of these efforts. They have the potential to engage future employers as well as teach necessary leadership and life skills that contribute to a lifetime of success. Some programs even work in conjunction with schools, helping youth achieve a high school diploma while simultaneously gaining meaningful work experience.

Many Catalyst Kitchens members have proven themselves to be greatly successful at reconnecting opportunity youth. Catalyst Kitchens hosted a panel about opportunity youth at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Denver, CO in 2015, with speakers from Life’s Kitchen in Boise, ID, Goodwill of the Olympics & Rainier Region in Tacoma, WA, Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans, LA, and Homeward Bound of Marin in Novato, CA. Each of these organizations offers job training programming embedded in working foodservice social enterprises and community meals operations. The speakers touched on the ways their programs are successful, with many commonalities. The programs all provide specialized training and experience that is sought by employers in food service that may have been challenging for participants to access otherwise. Equally important, each program develops critical life skills, which helps trainees gain valuable soft skills that will supplement their knowledge gained in the kitchen and will help them to thrive at their future jobs. Peer mentorship is also encouraged, which not only serves to inspire youth, but helps to cultivate leadership skills that will be useful in careers. Finally, these programs all provide specialized support and wrap-around services that are not only tailored to youth’s needs, but will also help youth to be successful outside of the programs and move towards employment or further education.

Experiential job training applied to real life food service operations offers a viable solution to the challenge of reconnecting opportunity youth. In 2015, more than a third of Catalyst Kitchens member organizations served youth in some capacity, and a third of those organizations served youth exclusively. Though opportunity youth face many challenges, Catalyst Kitchens member organizations have the ability to help youth stay connected to jobs and education.

For more information about opportunity youth, the unique challenges they face, and what Catalyst Kitchens member organizations are doing to solve the problem, check out our video series from the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit of 2015.