Food is more than simply sustenance. A good meal can be a gateway to joy, community, love, peace, and more. For one local nonprofit food program, Kindred Kitchen, food is a path to a brighter future and employment for people experiencing homelessness. Kinnon Falk, the program’s director, leads the initiative and shares how Kindred Kitchen is transforming the Houston food scene and the lives of its employees.
Falk worked with the leadership at Grace Place (a local nonprofit that supports young adults of all sexualities who are experiencing homelessness) and Kindred Montrose (a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church where people of all races, genders, gender identities, abilities, sexual orientations, fashion sense, and political leanings are not only welcome, but embraced) to help hatch the idea of Kindred Kitchen back in 2018. “Since then, I’ve been working to develop the program as a volunteer until just recently,” Falk explains. After pursuing a seminary degree in Berkeley, California, Falk decided that pastoral work wasn’t his true calling. “Instead, I wanted to work in the nonprofit world trying to solve problems,” he says.
Food was a natural way to ultimately do that for Falk, who has fond memories of growing up in rural Texas where he spent a lot of time on his grandparent’s farm. “They were always cooking things that they raised and grew that you couldn’t find in the stores,” he remembers. “In the summers, I would help them tend their garden and feed the chickens and cows. Every week, we’d drive to the fruit stand in the next town over and they’d always let me try some new fruit I’d never had before.”
Falk eventually moved to Austin, where he attended the University of Texas. He credits the city for opening his mind and palette to new cuisines and cultures after years in a conservative small town, raising hogs for his local 4H chapter. “I became a leftist vegetarian in four short years, but I’ve since dropped the vegetarian thing,” he jokes.
Ultimately, his cooking is credited to his family. “My grandma was a great cook,” he says, “and we always had a big family meal every Sunday. She passed her cooking skills down to my mom, who also loves to cook and try new things. When people ask where I learned to cook, I tell them that I get it from them. I never had any formal culinary training. I’ve always been an adventurous home cook. Since college, I’ve worked several catering and restaurant jobs that have sharpened some of my cooking skills. But I still wouldn’t call myself a professional chef; I’m just someone who is passionate about food and how it can change people’s lives.”
After moving to Houston in 2013 with his family, Falk began serving on the leadership team at Kindred Church. The nonprofit leader explains that discussing community needs with a local nonprofit made his path clear. “We knew that some of the biggest issues in Montrose continued to be youth homelessness. We talked with Grace Place leadership and youth to see if there was an unmet need that still wasn’t being addressed. The overwhelming conclusion was employment,” he observes.
While working at Healthcare for the Homeless, Falk got a crash course in youth experiencing homelessness. “Most of them were unemployed due to a lack of experience, and criminal backgrounds based on crimes associated with homelessness, such as trespassing,” he explains. “Sadly, a huge percentage of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+. Many wound up on the streets because their families abandoned them when they came out.”
Considering that both Grace Place and Kindred Church feature meals as a predominant means of outreach and support, it was a no-brainer that Falk’s employment-based mission would be food-related. “Kindred Kitchen based our model off of other nationally recognized and successful organizations who use businesses as revenue sources and provide opportunities for hands-on training for participants. While students learn the hard skills of the food-service industry, they also get classroom time to learn other soft skills crucial for successful employment and independent living,” he says.
“During the process of creating Kindred Kitchen (which currently operates as a traveling food truck and catering service) we worked with national food-based nonprofit consultants, local high-profile chefs, and industry experts—as well as homeless services experts—including those who had themselves experienced homelessness. Our mission at Kindred Kitchen,” Falk emphasizes, “is to provide pathways out of poverty for Houston’s young people, using the power of the kitchen and the table to achieve their vision of success.”
Falk shares that the program is in its early stages, but momentum has already begun to pick up. “Currently, we are working with a handful of Grace Place youth to do catering and spread the word about our program,” he says. “These individuals are also lending context from their personal experiences that are helping us flesh out the final components we will use in our pilot. Concurrently, we are fundraising and fine-tuning the particulars of the program. We hope to start by drawing students from Grace Place youth, but we don’t plan to restrict our applicants to that pool alone. Anyone interested can contact us via our website for information on how to apply.”
As far as skill-building, he explains that being a cook is one thing, but there are other traits to be learned as well. “We want to teach youth to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from feedback, being a part of a team where you support and depend on one another. Those are the things employers want to see,” he states. “Food is just the vehicle we’re using to transfer those skills, which they can then take to any career.”
Kindred Kitchen offers a variety of food menu options appropriate to the events they are hired to cater. Whether it’s a 500-person gala or an intimate gathering, Falk says his team is eager and ready to answer the call. “We want to teach our youth a variety of cooking techniques and cuisines, so we are open to making almost anything. Someone asked if I could do an ice cream sundae bar the other week and I said, ‘Sure! Let me go buy an ice cream maker.’”
An important component of the program will be job placement and post-employment case management. “We have a number of local, well-known chefs who are ready to start taking our graduates,” Falk says. “Once our grads are placed, our case managers will work with them and the employers to ensure those placements are a success. If there are any needs for other connections to services or coaching, we want to make that happen so our graduates can stay in those positions and work on their stability and success.”
“Kindred Kitchen transforms lives through food, offering a path from homelessness to employment and a brighter future.” —Kinnon Falk, Director
of Kindred Kitchen
Pointing to various events that Kindred Kitchen has catered as big wins for the team, Falk also shares that individuals are seeing exponential success. “Since we don’t have enough steady gigs to keep them full time at this point, our employees are also working other part-time jobs. I was so proud when one of our youth got another kitchen job and she was so excited to tell me how she showed off some of her new industry knowledge. She said she was using kitchen lingo like ‘yes, chef!’ and ‘sharp behind!’ and they were impressed. It warmed my heart to hear that.”
Funding is a key piece for the future of Kindred Kitchen’s success, but as Falk explains, the journey is a marathon, not a sprint. “We’re really just getting off the ground at this point. I can’t wait for us to complete our pilot and start having regular classes throughout the year. I want us to get a foothold in the local funding community so we can fund this project.”
While the program makes a profit from catering gigs, they aren’t profitable enough to negate the need for community support. “When you’re teaching, there are still plenty of mistakes made in the kitchen, which eats at our bottom line. But that’s expected in these programs and should be built in,” Falk explains. “We’re always going to need outside support and funding. I want to raise our public profile and make sure there are people in the community who know who we are and what we’re doing. Soon, we’re really going to hit the bricks with fundraising and grant writing. We’ve already had some success, but we’re going to need more support to make this happen.”
All of this hard work is being done with one main factor at the forefront of Falk’s mind: “The point of this endeavor is the youth, and having a high-quality successful food business will help the program. While I love our food truck and all of the time I put into remodeling it during the COVID lockdown, we would really like to have a brick-and-mortar operation one day,” he says of his future goals. “Kindred Church has a beautiful, versatile space for a café and is in the heart of Montrose’s restaurant scene. If we can raise the capital funds to get our kitchen up to commercial code, it will be so much easier to run this program. It would also benefit the church and Grace Place.”
“Our ultimate goal would not only be to have a full-time café where our students can learn and possibly work at upon graduation, but to offer an LGBTQ+ safe space for Houston. Many cities have cafés or coffee shops that provide a safe and welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ people and offer support and access to affirming resources. While there are many affirming establishments in our city, I think having one with a specific mission of being an affirming safe space would be a huge asset for the community.”
Falk will continue to bring other stakeholders and organizations to the table, so to speak, in an effort to increase his program’s impact throughout the city for his employees. “I think Kindred Kitchen has the potential to further the missions of both Grace Place and Kindred, the church. We both want to provide safe, welcoming spaces for vulnerable members of our local community. We want to be organizations that see and understand the problems in our community and come up with creative, holistic solutions.”