Mobile Village: Kitchen Brings Nutrition and Good Design To Foster Kids

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diners watch girl on stage
Kids and their foster parents gather for Thanksgiving Dinner and the unveiling of Mobile Village: Kitchen. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

So often architecture is associated with pricey custom homes and fancy institutional buildings.

But many designers are also helping shape the city with pro bono work for nonprofits in less affluent neighborhoods. One in the news recently is the Campus For At-Risk Children in Watts, being designed by Frank Gehry.

And unveiled Saturday — with a celebratory Thanksgiving meal — is Mobile Village: Kitchen, designed by LA architect Deborah Richmond for Peace4Kids, a nonprofit serving foster kids located at Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club in South LA.

Mobile Village: Kitchen is a custom-made, stark black box on a trailer whose sides descend to create a floor around a stainless steel kitchen. Designed with help from Richmond’s students at Woodbury School of Architecture, input from the kids at Peace4Kids and with exterior graphics by New York agency 2×4, the kitchen on wheels wouldn’t look out of place in the prefab section of Dwell on Design.

Debbie and Zaid on stage
Deborah Richmond and Zaid Gayle on stage at the unveiling of the Mobile Village: Kitchen. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

The mobile kitchen is intended to further the goals of Peace4Kids, founded 18 years ago by Zaid Gayle. Gayle, whose mother had grown up in the foster system, wanted to provide a place of peace and stability for foster children, who typically get bounced around from family to family, and find refuge in being with their peers. Central to his philosophy is the growing and sharing of food.

When he first got involved with foster kids, he created a community garden to teach the care of living things, and then he added cooking lessons because, he says, “everybody’s got to eat and it’s the time when traditionally you sit around the table and you tell stories. So for us, we want to take food to these communities so the kids who are in foster care get to hear the stories of others just like them.”

Ade in the community garden
Ade, a Nigerian-born bond trader, became a master gardener and now runs the community garden at Peace4Kids. Photo by Frances Anderton.

Out of that came the idea for the mobile kitchen, says Deborah Richmond, and the “idea of collapsing a kind of supply chain into this one unit where we might take this trailer out to urban farms, collect fruits and vegetables for the cooking classes themselves, hosting the cooking classes in the trailer, preparing the food and then potentially selling it as well from the trailer as a sort of retail unit.”

Gayle has high ambitions. Not only does he want to create a sense of sanctuary and pride in foster kids as well as a chance at careers later in catering; he also wants to impact food choices in South LA, which lacks access to fresh produce.

One of his goals is for the kids at Peace4Kids to learn about growing and cooking nutritional food, and take those lessons home to their foster parents and spread the message, “so foster parents will be coming on the trucks learning things from their foster kids. And we make sure that they take food on home.”

Trailer with sides up
Kids got to choose the design of the exterior, from a range offered them by New York design company 2×4; they picked the most minimal design, in stark black and white, with a shot of yellow. Photo by Frances Anderton

Gayle admits that his efforts at changing food culture got off to a rocky start.

“In the early days I was a vegan, I only ate organic fruits and vegetables, no refined sugars, it was ridiculous. So the kids would see me and they would go home and tell their foster parents, ‘I don’t eat meat.’

And I would get these angry calls from the foster parents, like, ‘what have you told the kids? That’s not how we do it here. I get a certain amount of money. I serve them what we get. They have to eat that.’… So that was a good first life lesson. So we’re not as stringent around that anymore. What we teach to kids now is it’s all about the nutritional value.”

Peace4Kids members Raquine, Elias and Willy sit on the steps of the mobile kitchen. Elias, center, gives a shoutout to other foster kids: “Come to Peace4Kids. Be at peace for once, no matter how many times you move.” Photo by Frances Anderton.

Gayle has run Peace4Kids for 18 years and says he currently reaches 250 kids annually, who start at age 4 and can stay through adulthood. But there are thousands of kids in the foster care system (over 60,000 in California and 20,000 in LA County).

Peace4Kids’ next plan is to raise funds to build more mobile kitchens and send them on the road to other communities with high numbers of foster kids, with the hope of reaching 1,000 kids per year. And he will be doing it with the help of the kids.

Raquine’s experience with Peace4Kids’ food program has lead to acceptance in L.A. Kitchen‘s culinary job training program. For him, the mobile kitchen “is life, this is what we’ve pretty much been waiting on and we hope to build around it. It doesn’t stop here. We hope to make the community better with the mobile kitchen, you know with healthier foods and everything and expand the word of Peace4Kids and hopefully just get more people to understand who we are and the message we’re trying to send.”

lady singing, zaid holding up hand
The kitchen is a trailer with two sides that fold down to create a floor space around a hardy kitchen island. It was fabricated by Armenco, an LA-based company specializing in food truck design. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

Deborah Richmond is an architect, an alumnus of Rem Koolhaas,  and professor at Woodbury University’s school of architecture. She has also been involved with Peace4Kids for several years and currently chairs the board. DnA sat down with her to find out more about the story behind the design and learned that stark black minimalism was favored not only by the designers, but by the kids as well.

DnA: How did this project come about?

Deborah Richmond: The mobile kitchen grew out of efforts by executive director Zaid Gayle to integrate cooking education into the Saturday programs for the youth and foster care. Initially they considered renovating a space in the Watts Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club but decided to create something they could own, not rent.

So I came back with the idea of mobility and putting the program on wheels. One of the concepts was getting into the more urbanism piece of it. This idea of collapsing a kind of supply chain into this one unit where we might take this trailer out to urban farms, collect fruits and vegetables for the cooking classes themselves, hosting the cooking classes in the trailer, preparing the food and then potentially selling it as well from the trailer as a sort of retail unit.

So that was sort of the big idea. But that quickly became overtaken by the discussions surrounding adaptability and what Zaid was referring to — the positives, the kind of core strengths that you develop as a person when you go through a foster care experience.

Side of Trailer descending
When the kitchen was unveiled Saturday, says Zaid Gayle, you could see the kids “lighting up in surprise at this huge gift that was just for them, that it was their kitchen and that they would be able to cook in here from this moment on.” Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

And this idea of adaptability and mobility just became a very powerful driver — no pun intended — for the mobile kitchen.

And it was a very interesting prototype to create. It’s not a food truck. It’s not a container. It’s a custom designed trailer. So the entire trailer frame, all of that, was built from the ground up from scratch to be deployable in such a way that it could travel but also open up and become a real space with some floor area as well as having all of the necessary equipment for a commercial kitchen.

And the youth actually really took ownership of it and began to program it and discuss how they wanted to use it and what they wanted to do with it and what it would mean to them.

We got them involved in the graphic design of the trailer. The graphic design firm 2 x 4 based in New York very kindly donated their design services to the trailer and their designs were reviewed and voted on and they received feedback from the youth themselves. That was at every step of the way. We wanted to keep the kids involved in it so that they would take ownership of it.

kitchen divas
The Kitchen Divas, clad in red, give the kids weekly cooking classes and worked with them to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

DnA: The graphic designers had to measure up in front of the kids?

DR: Yes, we were somewhat limited as to the palette and what we could actually do inside when you consider that you’re dealing with the health department. So they definitely went for the hard-core stainless steel on everything. Every surface you can touch is stainless steel.

I think what we were most surprised about was when the graphic designs came back and we had a selection of beautiful colorful rainbow images of different foods and vegetables and cooking activities and pictures.

And then at the very end of the presentation they had thrown in this black box with some white outline, wire-whisk implements on it and the words Mobile Village in yellow and white. And I was thinking, yeah, this is one the architects are going to love. You know, this is the classic example of, ‘this is what we like and the rest of the world doesn’t like.’

And [the kids] just floored us all by saying, ‘oh no, that’s the one we want. We want the black one. The totally dark gray one. It’s super cool, it’s very clean, it’s sophisticated,’ they just went for it. So we were all happy.

Kids serving
Kids help prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

DnA: What comes next?

DR: My hope for it always and the reason that it’s called the Mobile Village — and there’s a colon and then the word Kitchen — I hoped that this would become a kind of fleet. So we would have a lot of these trailers and the very initial studies showed a kitchen, but also we had art classes and in one we had a kind of literacy moving library in another; and music classes and essentially taking all the programming that’s available at Peace4Kids, putting it on wheels and sending it out to the community.

In many ways as possible it meets the County Health Department codes. It is an open space so we’re not able to permit it at this time but we are in conversations with County Health to figure out how to be able to serve and sell food to the public in its future programming. And I think that’s really the main story about it. And we are really just at the beginning. So it’s a prototype.

lady singing on stage
The kitchen is stainless steel with heavy duty commercial burners powered by 25-gallon propane tanks on the back of this vehicle. It has a greywater system and a generator. Future concepts include photovoltaics on the roof. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

DnA: And the kids are taught to cook by the Kitchen Divas?

DR: When we were still in the phases of trying to figure out ‘how do you get a cooking program off the ground’ or ‘how do we do this Mobile Village idea,’ one of the thoughts was that the important thing is to start getting a program going, trailer or no trailer, and to start having cooking classes. Once you have that going and you have some interest in it, it’s much easier to attract donors and attract interest when you have something functioning already that just needs a bigger facility or needs more equipment.

And so that’s when we brought in Kitchen Divas and they actually started hosting classes here, at the Boys and Girls Club, in a very small space using hot plates, etc. But where this project gains momentum and funding, quite frankly, is when we began to think of it as a potential vocational tool … for teens who might be preparing careers in cooking. And that’s actually how we obtained the Small Business Administration funding, because of this vocational element.

kids dancing
The fold-down floor of the kitchen was transformed after dinner into a stage for a dance party. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

DnA: So Debbie, what got you involved with Peace4Kids?

DR: So I was wandering around Watts one day a few years ago. For some reason that summer there were a lot of programs happening in South LA. One was a tour of the Richland Farms down in Compton … and I encountered a friend and colleague of mine, Richard Loring,who I have known as a developer over the years and now has a construction company.

He was already on the Board and I said, you know I’ve been looking for pro bono opportunities because it’s a good way to develop new skills as a designer, and he encouraged me to look into Peace4Kids because, he said, if you really want to get involved with an organization that’s effective, this is a very good one to get involved in.

kids spin tunes
Kids from Peace4Kids get a chance to spin some tunes. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

And so I kind of tentatively got involved, thinking that being the the architect in the room I had all of these skills and and knowledge that I was going to impart to this group in some sort of design capacity.

And of course I discovered immediately that there was a lot more here than I had initially thought — a lot that resonated with my own life, in fact, and I don’t want to go into all those details but I do relate quite viscerally to the foster care experience —  and I was just so touched by the coping strategies and adaptability, just the strength that I was observing in the kids I was starting to meet.

kids get served, mobile village behind
Kids and their foster parents line up for Thanksgiving dinner. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

So I have been a part of Peace4Kids for a few years now and I was never more surprised as the day when I walked in and said, well, maybe if we don’t know where to put the kitchen we should just put it on wheels, and here’s a sketch and it’s a truck and it’s got designs on the outside and there’s a kitchen on the inside and the sides open up. And I felt like an insane person kind of rambling on about this thing and they just looked at it and said, ‘Oh yeah, that seems like a good idea.’

And in that moment it’s when you remember as an architect that you only can be as good as your clients will let you be.

Zaid and others at ribbon cutting
The ribbon is cut. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.

DnA: And how does it compare — now that it’s completed — in terms of other design projects you’ve done?

DR: I have to say this project for me is a kind of bridge project between research and teaching that I do as well as my architectural practice. And so for me it’s extremely gratifying to see all those things come together.

I should mention that I am a faculty at Woodbury University and many of the students there were involved in the early stages of this project in the planning and design. We held a couple design studios looking at some preliminary ideas about cooking education for Peace4Kids, looking at the site here in Watts as we are next to the Compton Creek. For architecture students considering issues of water and water scarcity and our natural landscape in Los Angeles this is actually a very interesting location. The Boys and Girls Clubs is also co-located with Carver Elementary School and a county park; we are all on the same block.

Deborah Richmond on the steps of the Mobile Village: Kitchen. Photo by Frances Anderton
Deborah Richmond on the steps of the Mobile Village: Kitchen. Photo by Frances Anderton

So there’s just a lot of potential synchronicity on the site. So the Woodbury students did those studies. And in fact we had a pop up exhibition of their work at A+D Museum, and A+D then also hosted a fundraiser for Peace4Kids with another student project which attracted more donors and interest and allowed us to fund the design and construction of the actual trailer.

DnA: Was this cost effective? How much did it cost to create the mobile kitchen?

DR: Yes, it was cost effective. Certainly when you compare it to the cost of a commercial kitchen it was extremely cost effective. We worked with a fabricator in the Valley who specializes in food trucks and catering vehicles. And while it does have a few more features than your average food truck, it’s a very reasonable cost — and I don’t think I should probably reveal the exact expenses because that impacts a lot of people who are involved — but I would say that it was an extremely reasonably priced endeavor. But I’m the architect, so of course I’m going to say that.

Mobile kitchen before lunch and ribbon cutting
The kitchen before lunch. Photo courtesy Angela L. Torres and Isaiah Umana.