Combating Hunger, Creating Opportunity

DC Central Kitchen is America's leader in reducing hunger with recycled food, training unemployed adults for culinary careers, serving healthy school meals, and rebuilding urban food systems through social enterprise.
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Updates for Culinary Job Training

Overhauling First Helping

, July 15th, 2014


DC Central Kitchen’s mission is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities, and that mission is our guide as we build, develop, and make strategic decisions about our programs.

You may be familiar with our long-running First Helping program. This street outreach effort was originally intended to use food as a tool to engage men and women living on the streets with a hot meal, some coffee, and the chance to work with DCCK case managers who could connect them to social services that would get them back on their feet, everything from dental care to drug treatment. However, the program as it exists today is falling short of its mission-driven goal.

Our dedicated two-person outreach team provides First Helping clients with thousands of referrals each year to agencies that can address their next-level needs. But few of these referrals lead to real progress. We can open doors, but can’t force reluctant clients to walk through them. The type of comprehensive case management operation needed to push clients through DC’s social service system is not aligned with our primary skills in meal production and culinary training. Moreover, it would be duplicative of existing services that other nonprofits offer, and avoiding nonprofit redundancy is one of our core values.

Even more frustratingly, the on-the-ground reality is that the vast majority of our First Helping clients are content to receive a free daily meal from DC Central Kitchen without engaging with our outreach workers in any meaningful way. We exist to shorten this city’s line of hungry people by the way that we feed it. First Helping’s line isn’t getting any shorter, partially because too many of those standing in it won’t embrace change and partially because we haven’t succeeded in inspiring them to.

To ensure that our resources—be it staff time, food, or dollars—are deployed in ways that offer maximum impact, we are in the process of overhauling First Helping. At the end of June, DCCK stopped providing meals at our three First Helping sites. We are working to find another group to step in and provide replacement services, and DCCK is prepared to provide meals and fundraising support to a suitable nonprofit partner (if your nonprofit might be interested in being that partner, email us here). We are also preparing to increase the meals we provide to partner agencies in the areas around our former service sites, should they experience an increase in demand for their meals.

And know that no one is losing a job. Our First Helping outreach workers have been moved over to our Culinary Job Training program, charged with recruiting at-risk applicants and providing enrolled students with case management services that will improve our program retention and graduation rates. We will continue to visit our former First Helping service sites to recruit job training applicants and encourage people at these sites to engage with our pre-enrollment partners—but we won’t be bringing breakfast sandwiches.

We know our job training program changes lives and breaks the cycle of poverty. First Helping, as it stands now, does not. In July, we will also pilot a new initiative called ‘Second Helping’ that provides free grocery bundles packed with fresh, local produce to graduates of our Culinary Job Training program. Instead of giving food to people who may not be interested in changing their lives, we will invest our food resources in people who have proven their commitment to achieving self-sufficiency by completing our program. These free bundles will also allow us to keep in regular contact with DCCK graduates, enhancing our evaluation activities and allowing us to provide ongoing social services and job retention (or, if needed, replacement) assistance to our former students.

This was not an easy decision. In our hearts, we love First Helping and honor the tremendous work of our staff—and generosity of our donors—over the past 15 years of its activities. But we had to apply the hard data gleaned from this program and view it through the lens of our mission. We can do better, and for the sake of our clients, we must do better. At DCCK, we know we can’t afford to just do things that are ‘good.’ They need to be smart as well.

We’re devoted to doing right by our clients and donors every day, and that includes being transparent about our decision making. We invite questions and comments about this important evolution. To continue the conversation, please reach out to DCCK’s Director of Communications, Alexander Moore, at

Restaurant Partner Profile: Willow Restaurant

, July 13th, 2014


Chefs and restaurateurs are busy people. So why do Chef/Owners Tracy O’Grady and Kate Jansen of Willow Restaurant spend hours of their precious free time in our kitchen?

Personally, I’m always inspired by the programs and the folks who beat the odds with the help of DC Central Kitchen. DCCK focuses on long-term solutions, which is key.- Tracy O’Grady, Willow Restaurant

DCCK’s partners like the team at Willow are a big part of helping us carry out those long-term solutions by directly working with DCCK’s students and staff, and expanding our network of supporters.

“There is no more generous group with their time than our friends in the hospitality business, and Tracy and Kate live that every day,” says DC Central Kitchen CEO Mike Curtin. “As a recovering restaurateur, I understand the immense demands on their time, yet they give of that time freely and lovingly in ways that continue to change lives and inspire others.”

Over the last fifteen years, Kate and Tracy have taught guest lessons through our Culinary Job Training Program and participated in “Heritage Days”—special events where top chefs prepare their favorite dishes with our students and offer advice about building a career as a chef.

Kate and Tracy also started a mentoring program for our female students with women of the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier, of which Kate and Tracy are members. The “Les Dames,” as they are affectionately called, offer advice, support, and friendship for the women in our program (and also treat all of our students to an incredible brunch the morning of their graduation day). Most recently, Tracy and Kate teamed up with Will Artley of Pizzeria Orso, a long-time supporter of DCCK and a current board member, to organize a fundraiser at Willow.

“We are foot soldiers for the kitchen,” said Tracy, who is also a DCCK board member. “We do not have huge resources to donate, but we participate every year in small ways. I think our importance to the Kitchen is our long-term support, and I think others can support in that way as well.”

DCCK’s Director of Job Training, Marianne Ali, has seen first-hand the impact of Kate and Tracy’s long-term support. “It is apparent,” Marianne said, “that even in their busy restaurateur lives, Kate and Tracy ALWAYS hold DCCK near and dear to their hearts.” And for that, we are very grateful.

Be sure to check out the Willow Team at the D.C. BRGR Bash on Saturday, July 19! For every slider Willow sells, D.C. BRGR Bash will donate $0.50 to DC Central Kitchen. Willow is the defending champion—so we can guarantee the burger will be good.

Get your tickets on Eventbrite here. The first 50 people to use the promo code “IHEARTWILLOW” will get $5 off.

Volunteer Profile: Suga Chef Brings Style, Sweets to DCCK

, July 11th, 2014

Chef Padua Player, aka Suga Chef, poses with the students of the first Central Union Mission CJT class and the orange soufflé he helped them make.

The students of the first Culinary Job Training class at Central Union Mission yesterday got their first taste of cooking sweets this week thanks to Chef Padua Playa, aka Suga Chef, who taught the students how to make a cold orange soufflé.

Chef Padua won the High Stakes Cakes competition at our 10th annual Capital Food Fight in November, but his history with DC Central Kitchen goes beyond that. He first became acquainted with the Kitchen when his cousin graduated from the Culinary Job Training Program seven years ago. Chef Padua has been coming back ever since. “Coming to the Kitchen gives me some grounding. It’s nice to give back to people who actually appreciate it, and it’s rewarding too.”

The orange soufflé lesson was a perfect complement to the class’s emphasis on eggs this week in their culinary instruction. Chef Padua chose the dessert because it is cool, refreshing, and light, perfect for D.C.’s hot summers. “This was a fascinating cooking experience. I never thought you could use eggs in so many different ways. I never would have expected a soufflé,” said student Derrick Howard.

For some of the students, this wasn’t just the first time they whipped up sweets in the culinary program; it was the first time they created a sweet – ever. “I love when guest chefs come because we learn something so new. Especially me. I’m new to cooking so it’s a wonderful opportunity,” said student Kelvin Johnston.

Chef Padua is one of the 15,000 annual volunteers who lend their time and talents to DCCK, and you don’t need to be an award winning chef like him to make a big difference. We have a critical need for emergency volunteers who can help on short notice when volunteer groups cancel. Join our list of emergency volunteers today.

DCCK Culinary Graduate Finds Work at the White House

, July 2nd, 2014

abigail slider

At DC Central Kitchen, we teach our students that every job is a good job. An entry-level gig as a prep cook or dishwasher might not make you rich, but if you keep showing up each day with the right attitude and amount of effort, you can go places. 2013 DCCK culinary graduate Abby Wood took this teaching to heart, and it recently landed her a very special job—in the kitchen of the White House.

Soft-spoken, with soft features and short stature, Wood didn’t exude confidence in her early days at DCCK. At five years old, Wood was diagnosed with a learning disability, which she says led her to become shy and withdrawn. Time and again, she was told “You’re just not going to make it.”

At the behest of a loving aunt, Wood ventured down to DCCK, looking to turn a personal passion into a professional career. The busy kitchen, with clattering steel and chatty chefs, was intimidating at first, but instead of hearing from those around her that she wasn’t going to make it, her instructors repeatedly urged her to “trust the process.”

In the program’s first seven weeks, Wood was inundated with information, from exacting knife cuts to conversion measures to safe methods of handling food. With the help of her instructors, Wood made lengthy to-do lists. She started using her phone to help manage her time in ways that kept her from being distracted. She also learned how meticulous note-taking could help her learn better. And when DCCK’s hard-nosed self-empowerment classes or rigorous, month-long internship experience pushed her to the limits of her social comfort zone, Woods says her instructors “learned how to read me” and coaxed her out of her shell when she wanted to withdraw.

Upon graduation, Wood landed an enjoyable position at the Library of Congress, where she honed her skills in a diverse workplace. But Wood, so outwardly shy, had a bigger dream that she only whispered to her closest confidants at DCCK.

She had a dream of working in the White House. And through her first job, she developed a network, dutifully watched for openings, and trusted the process of achieving her dreams. The vetting process was long and frustrating, and she could have easily gotten distracted or dejected. But she didn’t.

In June of 2014, Abby Wood started work as a pastry assistant in the White House kitchens.

DC Central Kitchen taught me hyper-focus and a dedication to detail and learning new things, all skills that are beneficial in any environment, especially a challenging workplace like the White House.
- Abby Wood

Don’t let other people deter you from your goals,” Wood adds with a bright smile.

DCCK Training Director Receives White House Honor

, June 30th, 2014


One woman working in the basement of one of this country’s largest homeless shelters has spent 17 years helping DC’s ex-offenders get back on their feet, re-enter the workforce, and steer clear of crime (and punishment). Marianne Ali, the leader of DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program (CJT), doesn’t bring her trademark fire and vision to work each day because she’s looking for recognition or awards.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve them. And today, Chef Ali was named a White House Champion of Change. One of more than 900 nominees across the country, Ali’s record of “extraordinary work to facilitate employment opportunities for individuals formerly involved in the justice system” stood out through a highly competitive vetting process. Months after being nominated by her close partners at DC’s lead prisoner reentry agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), Ali joins 15 honorees in a group that includes acclaimed Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle.

CSOSA’s nomination credited Ali with helping to “develop one of the best culinary training programs in the country” and praised her “continuous and assertive” approach to guiding returning citizens through a complex web of social, legal, and financial barriers to achieve self-sufficiency. To date, DCCK’s training efforts, led by Chef Ali, have produced more than 1,300 graduates. Since the recession of 2008, CJT has produced 498 graduates with an 89% job placement rate—and 75% of Ali’s students are ex-offenders, providing a powerful return on investment to our donors and wider community each year.

To learn more about the White House Champions of Change program, visit

DCCK’s David Hill: Providing Crucial Support for Culinary Students

, June 12th, 2014
David Hill

David Hill (Left) is our only licensed clinical social worker on staff – and he’s a crucial support for our students.

David Hill, the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, believes that many students who come to DCCK already have all the skills they need. Most students have been through hard times and developed important life skills and resourceful approaches to getting by as a result.

Our students don’t realize how they can bring those skills into the Kitchen and into the workplace to become even more successful. That’s what we try to do as a team. - David Hill, DCCK’s Licensed Clinical Social Worker with the Culinary Job Training Program

Hill joined the DC Central Kitchen team last year as our first social worker and has been busy providing students with extra support since then. As a LCSW, he offers a clinical perspective to the Kitchen and therefore has a different lens with which to see any potential problems students may have. He is trained to assess and diagnose mental illness; whereas before, the program would send students elsewhere for the therapy they needed, Hill can work with students directly in the Kitchen – transforming the program into more of a one-stop shop. This is David’s first job working as the only LCSW on a staff, but that challenge excites him.

I’m the person they can come to talk to if they have issues or troubles and they would get help. No one would ever have to know. - David Hill

Confidentiality is of upmost importance to Hill, and because of Hill’s clinical background, he can help students with the core issues they struggle with, including those related to mental health. Ultimately, having David on staff means we can keep students more engaged in their studies so they can graduate and find jobs – and so they don’t have to worry about juggling an off-site provider of these services.

Coming to DCCK and helping CJT realize its mission better has been a wonderful career change for Hill, he adds. “To quote DCCK’s long-time empowerment coach Ron Swanson, we work with people who need second, third, fourth, or fifth chances. That excites me. Every person needs that.”