A Welcome from
Board President John O’Grady
Hello and welcome to the latest edition of our Commissioner Connection newsletter. Summer weather is upon us and the housing and development markets in Franklin County are heating up too as our community continues to grow by leaps and bounds. For all of that success, though, we commissioners know that we will not truly have success until all of our residents are able to share in it. That’s why we remain hard at work to support our residents, encourage business growth, develop new affordable housing, and keep our community and its residents safe.
I believe that affordable housing is the greatest challenge facing our community right now, so it’s always one of our top priorities. Last month, we provided funding for a project called Starling Yard that’s being built at the site of the historic Starling Middle School, and another of our recent resolutions provided $400,000 for the YWCA Family Shelter because it’s experiencing record demand because there simply aren’t enough places for people to live.
One of the things you’ll find in this edition of Commissioner Connection is information about our 2023 Local Food Action Plan Annual Report, which is close to my heart because I partnered with the City of Columbus to create the Local Food Action Plan back in 2014, and it helps to create a stronger, more resilient and sustainable local food system. You’ll also learn about some new grant funding we approved to support equity in our local healthcare industry, and our 2023 State of the County Report, which is an excellent opportunity to see all the ways we’re working for you throughout the year.
Lastly, in this edition of Commissioner Connection, you’ll get to meet Sangeeta Lakhani, one of the three amazing entrepreneurs behind the groundbreaking Café Overlook restaurant and workforce development program. Café Overlook feeds the county courthouse, but it also nourishes our whole community by providing training and support for social services clients and residents who are just returning from incarceration. It’s an apprenticeship that allows them to move into well-paid careers in the hospitality industry, and it provides a pipeline of well-qualified employees for an industry that has struggled in recent years to find them.
Thank you again for taking the time to engage with your county government and to learn more about how we’re working to serve all of our residents and families. There’s plenty more to learn at Commissioners.FranklinCountyOhio.gov, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to my office if you ever have any concerns or questions.
John O’Grady, Franklin County Commissioner
2023 State of the County Report
Each year, the Board of Commissioners issues an annual State of the County Report to update residents on the health and progress of Franklin County. In our seventh annual State of the County report, the commissioners are pleased to again be able to report that the state of the county is strong. To see the full report, visit report.franklincountyohio.gov.
Spotlight on a County Employee - Sangeeta Lakhani
Having just celebrated its one-year anniversary, Café Overlook, the county’s newest workforce development program, both feeds the courthouse and nourishes the community. Café Overlook serves as an apprenticeship program for social services clients and residents returning from incarceration in order to provide them with training and experience for good jobs in the hospitality industry. It also provides a new pipeline of experienced workers for an industry that has struggled to find them in recent years.
The commissioners came up with the concept of Café Overlook as their employees returned to in-person work at the courthouse, and it’s operated by three successful local restauranteurs who built the concept from the ground up. One of those entrepreneurs is Sangeeta Lakhani who, while not technically a county employee, works in the courthouse four days per week making sure that our team is fed and that her team is getting the training and support they need to move on to great careers.
Thanks for doing this. Tell us a little about yourself and your background. Where are you from and how did you get here?
I’m a 30-veteran of the Columbus restaurant scene, having come here from India originally to attend school at CCAD, the Columbus College of Art and Design. Once I figured out that cooking, and not photography, was my art, I moved into the restaurant business for good. I’ve tried to move other places a few times since then, but it never took. Columbus is my place.
So, you were in the restaurant business for quite a while and then co-founded Service! Tell us a little about Service!
Service! started with COVID. Letha Pugh (another co-founder of Café Overlook) and I collectively had to lay off more than 60 people at the beginning of the pandemic, and we started talking among ourselves about how we had to do something to help them and others from the industry. Three weeks later, we’d worked with our networks to get help and donations, and we started serving meals to out-of-work restaurant workers. We started working with a core staff of immigrant cooks who might not be eligible for unemployment or social services, and with their help, we were soon serving more than 200 meals per day. It’s easy to forget now just how dire things looked then, but people needed the support. They also needed the social interaction, and I think that was as important as the food for some people.
And then that led to Café Overlook… What made you want to support service industry workers in the first place and then how did that translate into the work you’re doing at Café Overlook?
I think COVID made people realize just how vulnerable everyone is, and shutting everything down also gave us an opportunity to sort of start over with new, good ideas. The commissioners knew that they needed some sort of restaurant in the courthouse, and they knew that the community needed more workforce development opportunities, and the idea to put them together seemed like a natural fit. Building it out and actually figuring out how it would work was a challenge, but the concept made sense from the start.
Both Service! and Café Overlook are built to support hospitality workers and I’ve heard you talk a little bit about your vision for a different kind of restaurant industry standard in which workers are valued and compensated more fairly. Tell us about that.
The service industry has been hurting for a long time—the low wages, the inequity, the lack of opportunity. It’s caused by fierce competition that’s being driven by big corporations, but the people who are hurt by it are our neighbors. Corporate restaurants are going to be with us forever, but smaller, local restaurants can provide a better experience for their customers and also take better care of their employees if they’re able to stop trying to compete with the Chipotles of the world. Doing that takes transparency and education, though. The customers need to understand everything that goes into making their food and how much their cooks and servers are earning so that they can buy into the better model that we’re trying to create. Fortunately, now is the time for this change to be happening in Central Ohio. Our community is growing quickly with folks moving here from all over the country and other parts of the world. These new residents aren’t all looking for cookie-cutter restaurants. They’re used to diverse cuisines and experiences, and our industry needs to recognize that and shift to a model that values its employees as much as its customers before it’s unaffordable for interesting, high-quality restaurants to exist here.
What has surprised you about running Café Overlook?
I’m used to being flexible, but the members of our team are facing challenges that I’ve not had to face, so this job requires more emotional flexibility and strength than anything I’ve done before. As much as we focus on food around here, it’s the people that I’m most proud of.
What’s your favorite part of your job and what’s the most challenging?
COVID showed us that anyone can be down on their luck in a heartbeat, and it taught me to judge less. Seeing people work hard to make positive changes in their lives is the best part of working here, absolutely.
What do you wish more people knew about what you do?
I wish people understood just how important it is to supporting small local businesses, which are the bloodline of our local economy. Keep an open mind. Ask your server how their day is going and change their day for the better. See service industry workers as part of the community—we all rely on them. Most of all, pick a mom-and-pop shop when you go out to eat or to do some shopping, and you’ll be helping to make your community a better place rather than sending your resources elsewhere.
Health Equity Grants
Earlier this year, the commissioners’ Community Partnerships agency finalized their yearly Health Equity Grants with nine partner agencies throughout Franklin County. The grants totaled $1.683 million, and the recipients were chosen because of their focus on reducing disparities in health outcomes primarily for populations that have been historically underserved by high-quality healthcare and health services.
Applicants for this year’s Health Equity Grants were required to not only show that they are providing healthcare to residents in need, but that they are also focused on long-term improvements in health outcomes, and also on moving health equity forward withing the organization and its partners. The commissioners’ 2019 Rise Together Blueprint for Addressing Poverty in Franklin County identified disparate health outcomes as both a symptom and a cause of poverty in our community.
Franklin County Commissioners 2023 Health Equity Grant Recipients
- Cancer Support Community of Central Ohio: $150,000 to focus on reducing barriers to caner care, providing appropriate support, education, programs, and wrap-around services for individuals impacted by cancer and who are disproportionately affected by health disparities
- Catholic Social Services Inc.: $50,000 to provide preventative health measures such as vaccines, mammograms, and behavioral health and education to Central Ohio’s Hispanic population
- Charitable Pharmacy of Central Ohio: $150,000 to expand the heart healthy nutritional access program to all patients
- Children’s Hunger Alliance: $150,000 to provide healthy and nutritious meals to children at risk for food insecurity in Franklin County
- FESTA: $8,000 to highlight the need for fitness to address physical and mental health among young people
- Lutheran Social Services: $50,000 to provide diabetes and hypertension education to residents in the Faith Mission and CHOICES populations
- OhioHealth Cooperation: $125,000 to provide comprehensive prenatal, postpartum, and women’s health care to women residing in Franklin County’s infant mortality hotspots
- Physicians CareConnection: $500,000 to provide high-touch care coordination that includes culturally and linguistically appropriate services
- PrimaryOne Health: $500,000 to offer a broad range of services and programs to meet the health needs of women and their families
Local Food Action Plan
The Columbus and Franklin County Local Food Action Plan was launched in 2014 to create a stronger, more sustainable local food system, and address inequalities in access to healthy food, affordable food, and local food. This year’s Local Food Action Plan annual report identifies four main goals for the year ahead:
- Enhancing coordination and communication among food resources and agencies to allow for greater impact.
- Improving access and education about healthy, affordable local food.
- Strengthening small businesses and ensuring a healthy supply of locally-produced food.
- Preventing food waste and recovering edible food before its wasted.
The work is intended to address stark food inequities that have plagued our country for centuries. For example, about 60 percent of African-American households are food insecure, two-and-a-half times the rate of white families.
The annual report released in April also included the release of an executive summary, community updates, and an interactive story map, which shows locations for a some of the local food partners. The community updates list dozens of examples of work done in 2022. For example, Columbus City Schools and OSU Extension collaborated on a Farm-to-School program that supported 78 school gardens and provided teachers with a calendar-based curriculum to enable indoor and outdoor gardening throughout the school year.
The OSU Extension office also became involved with a partnership with NBC4 that reached 2.7 million individuals with education on food production, nutrition, and healthy food preparation.