Paty Funegra of La Cocina VA has raised $2 million to turn her community kitchen into an incubator, a café and a place of hope for struggling immigrants.
By Collen DeBiase – The Story Exchange
It’s a big moment: Paty Funegra is getting ready to move her kitchen out of the basement.
Funegra is the founder of La Cocina VA, a social enterprise that helps unemployed Latino immigrants find jobs in the food industry by teaching them food and language skills. For the past five years, she has run the culinary-training organization from the lower floor of Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virgina. But now, she’s ready to scale — and recently raised $2 million to open the Zero Barriers Training & Entrepreneurship Center, which will include a state-of-the-art kitchen incubator, a community cafe, and, she hopes, the promise of a successful future for newly arrived immigrants.
An immigrant herself, the Peruvian-born Funegra says she feels it’s her responsibility to help the vulnerable — especially now. In the wake of the El Paso shootings, and amid anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration, “we see a lot of fear in our communities,” she says.
“My position is to hands-on jump in and do something about it. Don’t fight back that rhetoric with words but with actions.”
Learning the Best Approach
It took Funegra a while to figure out how to best help immigrants.
She grew up in Lima during a turbulent time of violence, poverty and narcotics trafficking. In 2007, she moved to the U.S. after falling in love with an American (the relationship didn’t work out) and eventually took a job with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. While the bank finances economic development projects in Latin America, Funegra felt disconnected, being so far away. “I was never able to experience how families in Nicaragua, or in Brazil, or back in Peru, were being the beneficiaries of these investments,” she says. “So I started looking around, here in the D.C. region, for opportunities to get involved with my Latino community.”
Funegra became a volunteer at DC Central Kitchen, a 30-year-old community kitchen that helps unemployed adults learn restaurant-industry skills while also donating the meals that they cook to the homeless or hungry. “So I went there to chop carrots and onions,” she recalls, noticing that the kitchen mostly served the African-American community. That was her “a-ha” moment. She asked Executive Director Michael Curtin if she could replicate the community kitchen idea, but this time serving Latinos. “Mike was very generous, accepting right away,” she says with a laugh, but “he didn’t realize that I was serious about it.”
Not only was she serious, Funegra launched La Cocina VA a short six months later, while still working full-time. “I didn’t have $5,000 back then” to hire a lawyer, she says, so she took online courses on how to start a nonprofit. Then she needed to raise more money and find partners. “I remember I was skipping lunches and breakfast at work, just to go and knock on different doors.”
The missing piece — and it was a big one — was an inexpensive kitchen for hands-on preparation, plus classrooms for English classes. Fortunately, Funegra knocked on the door of Mount Olivet, which took an interest in her idea and donated the use of its basement. “This has been an amazing partner,” Funegra says. She quit her day job, drained her savings to print her first promotional materials, and began her new career.
Changing Lives Through Food
Since 2014, over 120 students have taken part in the fully-funded 16-week bilingual training program, in which they take classes on food prep, nutrition, sanitation and kitchen vocabulary. Graduates receive certification through Northern Virginia Community College. Some 85% have found jobs in the industry, and graduates’ average hourly wage is $14 per hour, nearly double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25, according to La Cocina’s 2018 annual report.
Funegra has signed up a number of corporate partners, including food giant Nestlé. “La Cocina VA is providing students the skills they need to succeed in a huge and important sector of the economy: food,” the company said in a Medium post. With some 1.46 million people in the U.S. working in the food and beverage industry, Nestle added that it’s “thrilled to connect with trained talent.” Other partners include Hilton and Whole Foods.
Funegra says the majority of students are women immigrants from Central and South America, and many have been victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking. With La Cocina VA graduates now holding down jobs and making a collective $2.6 million in salaries, she hopes their success inspires other immigrants “to look at the future with hope and with light.”
The new center, which is scheduled to open this coming March, would triple the program’s current capacity, allowing 120 trainees to graduate each year. It will be located on the first floor of an affordable housing complex. The cafe is expected to generate revenue for La Cocina VA, while the incubator would help aspiring food entrepreneurs test out ideas. “We have dreamers that are dreaming about starting businesses, especially women from the Latino community,” Funegra says. “I am immensely proud that now, in the very near future, we will be able to support them to … create jobs and to contribute to the economy.”
Funegra believes her own experience as an immigrant has fueled La Cocina VA’s growth. “All those moments of challenges and obstacles, and barriers, and lack of clarity of the future, built the skills that I have now,” she says.