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Homegirl Café: Where Rival Gang Members Unite

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Written by Laurie Kaufman

Sometimes the most remarkable meals come from the most unexpected places. Recently, I went to the HomeGirl Café in Los Angeles with OrganicAuthority's Laura Klein to see what all the fuss was about. We had a great meal (their tacos are incredible) and heard stories of hopelessness and triumph from the Homeboys and Homegirls.

Despite the desperate backgrounds of Homegirl Café trainees -- everyone is either a previous gang member, drug addict, previously incarcerated or all three -- the place has a sunny interior, colorful artwork on the walls, and food that is fresh and delicious.

In the kitchen, former gang rivals -- and the girlfriends of rivals -- work side-by-side to prep, clean, cook and serve healthy, Latin-inspired dishes. According to Chef Pati Zarate, the number one thing waitresses, busboys and prep chefs learn, aside from how to prepare their 38-ingredient mole recipe, is not to take anything personally.

Chef Pati used to volunteer at Father Gregory Boyle's parish in East L.A.'s gang-riddled Dolores Mission neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Father Greg started Homeboy Industries in 1988 in an effort to address the growing problems and unmet needs of L.A.'s gang-involved youth. Chef Pati always loved food and in 2004 started her own café and began hiring Homegirls to help run the restaurant.

The café currently serves about 200 people each day and has 45 trained employees. Chef Pati offers a one-year training program, and all trainees are drug tested before they are hired. Trainees get real-world experience as well as culinary and life skills, such as getting to work on time, learning how to make the perfect omelette and helping make seasonal items such as plum preserves. After their program completes, they're given externships and job development.

Homegirl Café's breakfast menu includes homemade granola, multi-grain blueberry pancakes, mango upside down cornbread with warm milk (yum!), a variety of omelettes and Angela's Green Potion, which is an incredible spinach, mint limeade.

Lunchtime at the Homegirl Café is busy and the menu features guacamole with roasted pineapples, a great selection of salads, daily specials and 10 different kinds of tacos -- from vegan to carne asada, pork carnitas, two kinds of chicken mole, salmon and white fish. They also serve Saturday brunch.

I was able to convince Chef Pati Zarate to share her Mole recipe with me (and you guys!), which she's been serving since day one at the restaurant.

"We use seasonal, mostly local items in the mole and keep it simple to make since everyone at the café is in training," says Chef Pati. "Our mole usually has 37-40 ingredients and makes the vegans happy."

Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job

After our lunch that included a homegrown kale salad and enchiladas negras (five panela cheese-filled tortillas topped with salsa negra & cotija cheese), we took a tour of the Homeboy Industries facility. Our tour guide was Vance Webster, a passionate, well-spoken man who had spent a considerable part of his life in prison since he was a teenager. That is, until Father Greg Boyle came into his life.

Vance's story was tragic and moved us to tears, but his attitude was inspiring. While talking about his life outside of prison, with deep sincerity he said, "Hope has a new address in Los Angeles and it's Homeboy Industries."

As we toured the facility and met various homies, Vance talked about the various free services that Homeboy Industries offers, including:

  • Tattoo removal
  • Domestic violence support
  • Employment services
  • 12 Step meetings
  • Legal services
  • Mental health services
  • Curriculum/Education
  • Solar panel installation training and certification program

Father Greg started their free tattoo removal service in 1990 after a man came into his office with a big 'Fuck the World' tattoo on his forehead. The guy complained that he couldn't find a job and Father Greg said, "Where can I send you looking like that?"

Soon after, they got the guy a job bagging bread in the Homeboy bakery and Father Greg found a doctor who volunteered one hour a month to help remove the offensive tattoo. Pretty soon they had a waiting list of 3,000 gang members and went on to open a clinic with three laser machines. No place on the planet removes more tattoos than Homeboy Industries, and they currently have 23 volunteer doctors. In November 2011 they had a record-breaking 813 people use their services.

We also spoke with Jasmine, a worker at the Homegirl Café. At 23, Jasmine already has a felony, nearly OD'd, lost her two kids, lived on the street and spent time in rehab. She's been at Homeboy Industries for 10 months working in the garden, prepping food and making orders. She's now in the maintenance department and works two jobs while studying for her diploma.

"I've been on my own since I was 15 and I should be dead right now," Jasmine told us. "But, I believe that you shouldn't regret your past, because your past is a plan for the future. I was in jail for five months and I would pray for help. I was in the Hole for a week, and when I got out I made a change. I had a chance to do right or wrong and I wanted to do right."

Jasmine has been clean and sober for a year and told us that with Homeboy Industry's help she knows who she is and what she wants -- her goal is to become a probation officer or drug counselor.

Jobs Not Jails

The national average for recidivism is 70 percent, with an 85 percent likelihood of juveniles being re-incarcerated. A UCLA research team, led by Todd Franke and Jorja Leap, has been following Homeboy Industries and is now in the third of a five-year longitudinal study. So far, findings show that in a 300 person sample, 70 percent of Homeboy's clients have not been rearrested. In a smaller focus group of 50 clients, 96 percent have not been rearrested.

Similar programs around the U.S. average a 20-60 percent retention (non-incarceration) rate, so Homeboy Industries is perhaps the most effective, largest -- and certainly most famous -- gang intervention agency in the nation.

Think of it this way: the L.A. County average cost to keep a juvenile in detention ranges between $100,000 to $150,000 a year, and this figure doesn't include mandated mental health or education services. Not accounted for are opportunity costs of incarceration: for juveniles, every day in detention increases their chances of returning to jail as an adult; and for adults, prison time means a loss of potential job experience, productivity and wages, abandonment of parental responsibilities, and leaving behind a family that now relies on a single-parent's income. According to Cohen (1998), a high-risk youth will cost society between $1.7 and $2.3 million over their lifetime.

Compare these expenses to the cost of Homeboy Industries. They provide job-training positions including pastry baking, managing a diner, growing victory gardens, prepping homemade granola by the pound, silkscreen printing and solar panel installation. Plus, they provide many free services such as tattoo removal and counseling, all for a cost of $20,000-$45,000 per person.

So, that means when trainees get their hands dirty making succulent wreaths, planters, jams and preserves, they are working to break the cycle of urban gangs. And, when you purchase Homeboy's Chips & Salsas at 256 Ralph's deli sections in Southern California, you are helping create a stable job for young parents trying to make a better life for their children.

Grow, Prep, Serve

Homegirl Café has several spin-off businesses including a catering company, cooking classes and farm-to-table events that bring fresh, organic produce from their urban farms to L.A. residents. Their current crop includes lettuce, basil, squash blossoms, peppers, purslane, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and a variety of herbs that are used in the Café and sold at numerous farmers markets. They also have an L.A. City Hall restaurant that offers to-go sandwiches and coffee, and plans are in the works to open a Café at Los Angeles' International Airport (LAX).

The Farm to Table is an especially exciting program that works with other urban farms and gardens to grow food for the Homegirl Café and 22 local farmers markets.

"We offer a safe place where people can turn their lives around," says Farm and Table Coordinator Sarah Leone. "Our overall mission at the Café is 'grow, prep, serve' and we offer a 1-stop-shop for rehabilitation from a gang lifestyle. We give people a chance to turn their lives into something positive."

Homegirl Café was recently awarded a $5,000 Ford Community Green Grant at the inaugural Los Angeles Green Festival. The grant will be used to make urban farm family education an ongoing part of their training program curriculum, with agriculture workshops, healthy cooking classes and resources to assist community members with starting their own home gardens.

Despite the downside of growing food in an urban environment, including cats, birds that eat your seedlings and people who come into the garden and take the food, Sarah Leone insists that Homeboy Industries is a great place to work, particularly because, "Father Greg believes we should find our inner light and let it shine."

If you are as moved as we are by this incredible establishment, you'll also love this TedX talk by 2 Homegirls.

This is a guest post by Laurie Kaufman

Laurie Kaufman is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, media strategist and activist working on issues including community self-reliance, organic farming, social justice, labor, and youth-at-risk. Her projects have included Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Thom Hartmann's Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. Laurie's work has appeared in Resurgence magazine and City Trees, and she edited the books Winning Our Energy Independence, by S. David Freeman and Rainwater as a Resource. She has a Masters in Cultural Anthropology with an emphasis on social and ecological justice and produces KPFK radio's Deadline LApublic affairs show. Laurie is also the mom of several young children. Feel free to check out her FACEBOOK profile.

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