We Use Food as a Tool to Strengthen Communities
Through job training, meal distribution, and local farm partnerships, we're building long-term solutions to the interconnected problems of poverty, hunger, and homelessness.
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Adults who were unemployed, in prison, or homeless just a few months ago are cooking their way to success through DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program. Their first challenge? Whipping up empanadas that will be judged by professionals in the restaurant industry.
The Culinary Job Training Program is just one of the DC Central Kitchen programs that benefits each year from Sound Bites, an outdoor food and musical festival on May 19 at the 9:30 Club. The event will feature dishes from such notable restaurants as El Centro, Bar Pilar, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, The Hamilton, and many more.
Beyond the event, restaurants featured at Sound Bites are getting involved in other ways. Chef Anthony Lombardo from 1789 and Lori Scott, Sales & Marketing Manager from Gordon Biersch, will meet students and provide career advice during the students’ cook off on May 8. Lombardo is an active supporter of the Culinary Job Training Program and Gordon Biersch recently raised $7,800 for DC Central Kitchen from their Navy Yard location opening.
To prepare for the cook off, students, who work in teams, are expected to research empanada recipes and bring them to team members for collaboration. Teams have two days to choose, practice, and tweak the dish for the competition.
The cook-off occurs during week six of the 14-week program, which trains students for careers in the food industry, including all facets of work in a professional kitchen. Additionally, students attend self-empowerment sessions and graduates are assisted in an intense job search to obtain full-time employment at local restaurants, hotels, caterers, and other hospitality businesses.
“We couldn’t do our work without our partners in the restaurant industry,” said Paul Day, Communications Manager for DC Central Kitchen. On April 24, chefs from four participating Sound Bites restaurants visited DC Central Kitchen on Heritage Day, a hands-on cooking demonstration that provides culinary skills and career guidance to students in the program.
“This program provides a unique opportunity to encourage an open dialogue about personal challenges and then we help the students develop strategies for dealing with them,” said Marianne Ali, Director of Culinary Training. “We use food preparation to prepare students for future careers, but also to teach life skills.”
For students like Shania, the program provides a unique opportunity for growth. “It has been challenging in every way,” she said. “It’s helping me with the constant battle to break out of my old patterns.”
For others, the program teaches discipline. “I’ve learned to accomplish a lot of things, like being more responsible, and to not let my attitude disrupt my future,” said Lawrence. “I am learning how to ask for help.”
This post was republished in The Huffington Post.
Earlier this week, The Huffington Post’s Arthur Delany crafted a wrenching narrative of sequestration striking senior citizens through its painful cuts to the Meals on Wheels system. That up to four million meals have been taken from our elders by way of the avoidable, self-inflicted crisis of the sequester is appalling–but the suffering caused by these cuts offers only a small sampling of what will come as America’s aging crisis approaches. By 2030, this country’s population of older adults will have doubled in size since 2000, to 72.1 million people. Although allowing these people to age with dignity is hardly an example of ‘wasteful’ spending, the onset of American austerity should inspire us all to seek new, cost-effective solutions.
Recently, a Brown University study found that feeding senior citizens in their homes reduces the need for nursing homes. More meals, less long-term care. That’s a good start. But at DC Central Kitchen, we know that ‘more meals’ is never a solution by itself. All too often, organizations devoting to fighting hunger focus on filling the stomach, to the exclusion of nourishing the whole person. Stomachs can only be full for so long before they need another meal. Then those clients are back again, day after day, rendered dependent until the funding dries up. On an infinite timeline, this is not a pretty picture.
There are better ways to nourish and empower our elders. At DC Central Kitchen, we’re testing a few of them, with powerful results.
One way involves rethinking what we actually feed them. Dusty smatterings of canned food belong in our basements, not the bodies of older adults. We need to rebuild our food systems around the sorts of fresh, wholesome items that can be efficiently aggregated, prepared, and shared with senior citizens. It’s not news that America wastes incredible quantities of food. Wasting 52% of our fresh fruits and vegetables, however, is not just unseemly–it’s incredibly stupid. These are our best weapons in promoting long-term senior health, but most every crooked carrot, off-color pepper, or oversized yam is left to rot in the field. At DC Central Kitchen, we recover more than 300,000 pounds of unwanted produce each year and pay farmers fair prices for items they could not otherwise sell. Our model generates new income for them and brings bumper crops of dimpled and off-color fruits and vegetables into our urban kitchen. This fresh produce infuses our nutritious, economical meals and represents an investment in the long-term health of our city’s seniors. It works in Washington, DC. It can work just about anywhere.
Another way involves getting seniors out of their homes to lead lives with meaning. “Retired” should not be synonymous with “idle.” People with decades of professional and personal experience have much to offer, especially when sharing their knowledge with young people eager to solve long-standing problems. DCCK’s national arm, The Campus Kitchens Project, is a student-led initiative that empowers young people to start their own community kitchens in college dining halls and high school cafeterias, turning leftovers into real meals for those in need. CKP is a pioneer in the field of intergenerational service, expressly recruiting senior citizens to support these efforts. Seniors then impart what they know to a new generation of civic leaders while re-connecting with their community. If we are going to make a big deal out of feeding senior citizens–and we should–let us make sure we are fueling them for a greater purpose.
Developing the food systems and community service infrastructure necessary to carry out these changes will be costly in the short term. We should not see these activities as expenses, but as investments. As it stands today, retirement will look very different for people who are under 30, like me. It may disappear entirely. If we want it to be around for us, we need to change what it looks like today. By all means, let us defend Meals on Wheels to fight short-term hunger and reduce long-term care costs. And let us drive down our health costs further with preventative, inclusive measures that allow senior citizens to be healthier, more active, and more engaged as they age. The sequester is not the real villain here. It’s a popular definition of ‘wasteful’ that seemingly applies only to money spent on the most vulnerable among us–not the fresh produce and productive minds our country casts aside each day.
Here’s another chance to help feed the SOUL of the city!
We’re proud to announce expanded volunteer opportunities in the afternoon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. These new shifts will allow volunteers to play a greater role in meal production at our 425 2nd Street kitchen, assisting staff in producing 5,000 meals each day for over 100 different partner agencies.
The new 1 to 4 PM shift starts on May 1st. Head over to our volunteer registration site to sign up for the new shifts through the end of the year.
At DC Central Kitchen, transportation has always been an integral part of our mission. Without our fleet of 19 vehicles, we couldn’t serve the over 10,000 meals we produce each day to partner agencies and DC schools.
Chris Lucas, our Transportation Manager, ensures that our Transportation Department operates with efficiency and professionalism. His team of 10 drivers are the first to clock in each morning, hitting the road to pick up donations or deliver healthy meals around the city. Odds are you’ve spotted one of DCCK’s trucks out on the road. And our drivers are often the first and most familiar faces seen by the agencies we serve.
“Professional interaction with clients is very important,” says Chris. Drivers are often asked questions about what we do. “Most people think we’re a soup kitchen. Our drivers have to explain we are so much more.”
“When I started, I was excited to work here. While in training, I remember one of the guys training me saying in conversation, ‘if we mess up, people don’t eat.’ I remember thinking, ‘man, this is serious business!’”
Attention to detail and safety are among Chris’ priorities for his team. “We have to be a can-do department. There is no dropping the ball.”
In the past few months, Chris has worked to make safety more of a priority. Since the start of the year, we’re proud to say there have been no safety issues. Chris plans to take the department in a greener direction to really set us apart.
Hats off to the amazing work of Chris and our drivers, helping us feed the soul of the city!
Truck Farm is back! Last week DC Central Kitchen staff prepared the truck for its third year as a traveling, edible garden exhibit aimed at introducing the city’s youth to gardening and fresh, healthy foods. The bed of our Truck Farm is now growing carrots, snap peas, bush beans, lemon thyme, purple sage and about twenty other vegetables and herbs.
We’d like to thank our financial sponsors, the Aetna Foundation and the 15 Foundation, for making this work possible. More thanks to Old City Farm and Guild for donating seedlings for last week’s planting and Johnson Florist and Garden Center for donating supplies.
During this year’s growing season, we will be taking the Truck Farm to visit kids at the youth agencies, schools, and Healthy Corners stores that we serve, as well as city farmers markets. During each visit we’ll introduce kids to gardening and show them that it really is possible to grow your own food right here in the city. Each hands on session allows kids to touch, smell and even taste fresh veggies and herbs.
The Truck Farm is an important part of our wrap-around approach to ending childhood hunger. The program generates enthusiasm about eating fresh foods and increases participation in the healthy, scratch-cooked meals we deliver to ten DC schools in Ward 5, 7, and 8 by using lessons to generate enthusiasm about the fresh fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays.