Founded in 2014, La Cocina VA uses the power of food to generate opportunities to create transformational social and economic change for immigrants, refugees, minorities, victims of trauma and domestic violence, and other underserved groups. With the help of experts on social issues and business as well as chefs and social workers, La Cocina VA addresses critical challenges, including unemployment and food insecurity, by providing innovative programs to fill the gap between poverty and development.

Headshot of Patricia Funegra

La Cocina VA offers bilingual, vocational, and technical education and job placement services and support low-income entrepreneurs in launching food-related businesses. They provide nutritious meals to homeless shelters and low-income housing facilities in Northern Virginia. La Cocina VA’s community cafe and catering services also provide employment opportunities for low-income youth while helping to support the organization’s work.

In 2021, La Cocina VA received a Many Hands Partner Grant of $72,500, which provided unrestricted funds for the organization to continue its general operations. Recently Many Hands Board member Robin Berkley had the pleasure of touching base with the organization’s founder and CEO, Paty Funegra. Here’s what she had to say:

How will the Many Hands grant help La Cocina VA fulfill its mission, and why are unrestricted grants so important in this process?

This significant grant will help us realize our goals of having a larger impact on the community from our new facility, the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center. A unique social enterprise, TEC includes three service programs and two revenue-generating programs under one roof to reduce the barriers our low-income clients face.

  • The Culinary Training Program provides adult education and jobs.
  • The Food Assistance Program provides healthy meals to those in need in our community.
  • The Small Business Incubator (SBI) helps low-income people of color start or expand small food businesses.
  • The Café and Catering Services provide employment while generating revenue for our other programs.

Since we have such a comprehensive set of programs, an unrestricted grant gives us the ability to use the money where it is needed most. We appreciate the flexibility in funding. It is also crucial to keep our operations running smoothly so that we can provide continuous and crucial programming.

As the founder and CEO, what inspired you to start La Cocina VA? How have you observed needs change, especially as a result of the pandemic?

I had seen the combined pressing issues facing the low-income Hispanic immigrant community of unemployment, lack of English skills, and food insecurity. I looked in the kitchens at service food operations and saw immigrants working hard with little to no opportunities to advance and earn more money to provide for their families.

I became obsessed with finding a solution to this problem. For a year and a half, I worked days and nights learning everything I could about nonprofits, looking for a location, and searching for partners. In 2014, I quit my job, used all my savings, and went to work in the basement of a church where La Cocina VA was born. Historically, we served the Hispanic population, but in 2018 we opened our programs to immigrants of other ethnicities as well as low-income Americans and veterans.

Low-income people of color have always faced barriers to employment and entrepreneurship. These systemic problems have only been magnified since the pandemic began. Food service workers, particularly, have been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis and have been affected in multiple ways. They have lost their jobs and future career opportunities, face increased food insecurity, and do not have health insurance. We have also seen the need for children to receive additional assistance when they are out of school.

We have also seen resiliency in our clients. They want to work, and some are looking for a chance to start something new, like their own business. We believe we are uniquely positioned to help our clients recover from the pandemic, especially because we have long-term connections with hotels, restaurants, and catering companies to provide employment and we have culinary and food business expertise.

Your organization has a strong belief in the power of the individual to create success for themselves given the right support and resources. What elements do you believe are the most important in creating transformational change?

We believe that every individual no matter their nationality, ethnicity, or background has the potential to succeed and improve their economic situation through employment and entrepreneurship. The whole concept of the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center is to reduce systemic barriers that our clients face and truly have racial equity for all. We believe that given the opportunity, skills, and knowledge, people of color who have faced hardships in the past can improve their financial position and support themselves and their families. Our goals are to improve access to jobs that pay living wages and benefits for all people of color.

We have seen a true transformation in the lives of our clients, especially women. Most important, they gain confidence by gaining a skill and contributing to their community. They also gain economic power. Once they gain confidence and get a job where they are earning a living wage, they begin to see the future possibilities for themselves and their families. They learn to speak up and advocate for themselves and can pass that positivity onto others in their community.

How can Many Hands members continue to support La Cocina in achieving its goals?

Photo of woman handing a cup of coffee to a customer at La Cocina VA's community cafeWe would like to get the opportunity to get to know your members better and make lasting connections for the future. We have several opportunities for volunteers to participate and to be part of our mission. Many Hands members could work on skills-based special projects such as financial management coaching, technology implementation, marketing and communications, and English language tutoring. They could volunteer on the Board of Directors. Another opportunity is to become a mentor to one of our students or small business development program participants to assist them in their professional career development or entrepreneurial ventures. As the pandemic eases, we hope to have groups involved in preparing food for our Food Assistance Program.

We would also appreciate Many Hands members coming to the Café and spreading the word to their friends and neighbors about it and the meaningful purpose behind it. When COVID restrictions allow, we would also be willing to host small events and can offer our catering services.

What makes the Many Hands grant process a unique opportunity for an organization like La Cocina VA?

We were honored to have been chosen out of the many applicants to receive a Partner Grant. We were chosen for Economic Empowerment, and not many grant-giving organizations have this important category. It is unique that we get such a large unrestricted grant from an organization with so many members. Most of our clients (85-90%) are women, so,it is great to see women empowering women.