Updates for Healthy Corners
The following is adapted from a speech made at the 2015 Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit.
At DC Central Kitchen, we talk a lot about social enterprise. Usually, we use the term when we’re talking about DCCK initiatives, like our Healthy School Food program, that not only bring nutritious food to our community, but simultaneously earn revenue for our organization and, most importantly, create sustainable, living wage jobs for graduates of our Culinary Job Training program. We’re really proud of being a true job creator, and you’ve probably heard us mention that we now earn 60% of our annual budget through social enterprise.
Over the last decade, the term ‘social enterprise’ has been embraced by countless nonprofit, for-profit, and philanthropic groups—and that’s a good thing. We should be empowering nonprofits to embrace their economic potential and encouraging businesses to be better corporate citizens. But with so many different actors using this term, it’s on the verge of not meaning anything at all.
So, we have a suggestion for a new way of describing our work. Back in 1999, a Wall Street Journal reporter visited DCCK. Long before social enterprise was a ubiquitous term, here was a resourceful outfit, fighting food waste, combating hunger, giving economic opportunity to jobless adults, and smartly deploying every dollar for maximum impact. Puzzled, the reporter asked our founder, Robert Egger, just what she should call him.
“Call me a righteous entrepreneur,” he responded.
All these years later, we’ve returned to Robert’s insightful quip, and found new meaning in it. What follows are our eight rules for righteous entrepreneurs:
1) It’s OK to be a little anti-social in service of your mission. The term ‘social enterprise’ doesn’t fully embrace the competitive realities faced by organizations that are striking a balance between doing good and doing well. We think mission-driven organizations should be tough competitors so long as that competitiveness is in service of their core values. If a righteous enterprise is worth anything, its principles should be worth fighting for. At DCCK, one of our line-in-the-sand principles is that we don’t believe in handing out free food unless it’s paired with some form of meaningful empowerment, a means of addressing the root causes of why people are hungry to begin with. We draw that distinction a lot, even if it means challenging some popular perceptions about what it means to fight hunger or passing up funding that might compromise that core value.
2) Maintain a sense of productive impatience. Focus on something, do it well, and move on as a better version of yourself. We believe that anytime someone asks us ‘What’s new with DCCK?’ that we should always have a meaningful answer. It’s not enough to stand pat, protect your reserves, and wait for the next grant or angel donor to roll in. As Robert was famous for saying, we believe in relentless incrementalism, doing the little things a little better, a little bigger, a little bolder, and a little more beautifully each and every day.
3) Beware the folly of scale. Many start-up social enterprises are long on vision. Before they’ve made their first payroll, they’re talking about taking their operation to new cities and new countries. But as Robert argued in a powerful REDF op-ed in 2014, meaningful scale isn’t just about opening up more franchises or moving more units. It’s really about scaling bigger ideas about righteous enterprises, fair wages, preventative measures, and racial equity that can change the operating environment of our programs, rather than simply building programs that work within existing constructs. That’s the difference between plugging into the Matrix, and being The One who can reshape it. Too often, the cult of scale glorifies the individual social entrepreneur rather than the community or cause it’s intended to serve. Because a righteous enterprise is about fulfilling a vision, not satisfying an ego, growth plans must be keenly attuned to community feedback. There’s a reason that The Campus Kitchens Project’s growth has been so steady and sustained. Our model of replication encourages students to carefully examine existing needs and services, and in doing so build robust community connections that can support lasting change.
4) Shoot to thrill. As Robert told that WSJ reporter in 1999, pity is incapable of creating anything of substance. One person’s guilt cannot liberate another from the bondage of poverty and lack. The ideas and actions of a righteous enterprise should excite others about what’s possible and capture their imaginations. And most importantly, those ideas and actions should excite the people who work for that enterprise. Come volunteer with us sometime, and ask the women and men running our kitchen how they feel about DCCK (or check out this video).
5) Be proactively responsive. A functioning operation can’t be purely reactionary, but it also should never put its mission and constituents at the mercy of a rigid five year plan. For example, last year, our Evaluation Unit found that the number of DCCK culinary graduates who were finding part-time rather than full-time employment was creeping up. Instead of patiently waiting for existing employers to create more full-time opportunities, DCCK teamed up with food business incubator Union Kitchen to help create new employers who could offer those full-time jobs. We then piloted a transitional employment program that had a 100% success rate in guiding our graduates into full-time, unsubsidized employment with Union Kitchen member businesses.
6) Failure is an option, if you’re failing forward. Failure is a far better teacher than success. And we believe that sharing our failures can help others build on our work and move our community forward. That’s why we took three years of lessons learned through our Healthy Corners program, compiled it into an honest, practical how-to manual, and gave that manual away for free to anyone who wants it. Healthy Corners spent years on the bleeding edge of innovation, and we want other groups to replicate what’s now working, avoid approaches that clearly didn’t, and find ways to do an even better job at fighting food deserts.
7) Don’t take %$#@ from anyone. You can’t succeed if you’re always afraid of someone cutting your funding or denying your next grant application if you speak your mind, or adjust a program, or embrace a new political cause. If that concern comes up a lot, you probably shouldn’t be working with those partners anyway. On an individual level, don’t put up with people disrespecting the people you serve or the sector you work in. When people tell us, “Oh that’s so good of you to fight hunger,” we tell them how smart it is, and why it’s smart for them to get involved too.
8) We want to be humble about this last one, because it may not make sense for every group or every cause. But at DC Central Kitchen, we believe we have a moral obligation to put ourselves out of business or go out of business in the attempt. Our model of empowerment is designed to shorten our community’s line of hungry people by the very way that we feed it—from engaging our culinary students in our daily meal production, to providing living wages, to helping 80 partner agencies across DC save $3.7 million dollars in food costs annually that they can then reinvest in their life-changing services. But beyond our model, we believe our daily business involves taking risks in service of our community and putting our money where our mission is. Instead of using our (admittedly small) year-end surplus to boost executive salaries, we provided an additional match to our employee retirement fund—because we believe women and men getting their first jobs after decades of unemployment or incarceration deserve all the help they can get in building a decent, dignified retirement.
Dig the idea of #RighteousEnterprise? Check us out on Twitter @dcck and join the conversation!
Last week, The Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine published a new study revealing that while Americans as a whole are eating healthier, low-income individuals are not. Access to quality nutrition is now one of the most important and detrimental dividing lines between rich and poor—and that inequality is making it harder for low-income people to stay healthy, which in turn drives up healthcare expenses for everyone.
At DC Central Kitchen, we’re taking this challenge head on with our pioneering Healthy Corners program. Since 2011, we’ve helped corner stores in struggling neighborhoods stock and sell fresh produce and nutritious items by giving them free infrastructure (like refrigerators and shelving), marketing assistance and affordable deliveries of healthy food. With an average retail price of just $0.44, Healthy Corners products are good for both low-income consumers and small business owners.
To keep these prices low, we work with public agencies and philanthropic supporters to offset some of the costs of running Healthy Corners. Earlier this year, we received a grant from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) to expand our program from 32 to 62 stores. After a summer of intensive outreach, we met and exceeded that goal, and now 63 small businesses in under-served DC neighborhoods are selling fresh, healthy food that otherwise wouldn’t be on their shelves.
Other key partners in Healthy Corners’ success include the DC Department of Health, Aetna Foundation, Wallace Genetic Foundation, McGuinn Family Foundation, Prince Charitable Trusts, and Kaiser Permanente. Earlier in 2014, Healthy Corners won the Tavis Smiley-University of Maryland Social Innovation Challenge, a national competition seeking solutions to long-standing community challenges.
Thank you to all the partners, supporters, customers, and small business owners working together to make Healthy Corners a success!
Huan Song used to dream of being a professional chef. Today, she aspires to make fresh, nutritious food available in all of DC’s poorest neighborhoods. A love of cooking and her volunteer work with The Campus Kitchens Project linked these two dreams and led her to her current job as nutrition and community coordinator at DC Central Kitchen.
The Campus Kitchens Project feeds a love of cooking
Huan has been involved in nutrition and food issues since she was a teenager. She graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2013 with degrees in environmental science and business administration, but her first love was culinary arts—specifically French cuisine—and she planned to go to culinary school after high school.
“I learned French and everything,” she laughs.
Her parents suggested she spend time working in a restaurant kitchen before enrolling in culinary school. This was sage advice, as it turned out: Huan hated the hectic kitchen environment, but her love of cooking remained intact.
“So I went to college. But there was no kitchen in my dorm and I needed a place to cook. My first week at college, I went to an information session on Campus Kitchens,” she says.
Over one-third of all food in the United States is never eaten—it gets thrown out, usually after it has been harvested, transported, processed, and sold. This waste drives up food prices, uses up resources, and adds to pollution. At the same time, millions of people in the U.S. suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Through The Campus Kitchens Project, student volunteers at 36 schools around the country address the dual problems of waste and hunger by recovering unused food from cafeterias and preparing and delivering nutritious meals for people in need. They also teach kids and families about nutrition, develop partnerships with farms and other institutions to make efficient use of food, and build connections in their schools’ communities.
Huan volunteered for The Campus Kitchens Project throughout her college years. She began gleaning for the program from a farmers’ market in Colonial Williamsburg that she frequented every Saturday, getting to know the farmers and bakers, who were happy to donate their unsold products to the program.
She also joined the Botany Club, worked for food service company Aramark doing market-sustainable procurement for the campus dining service, and interned at an international development organization to learn more about food and development issues.
In the process, she developed a passion not just for food, but for food justice, and that’s what brought her to DC Central Kitchen. As nutrition and community coordinator, Huan works on two DC Central Kitchen programs, Healthy Corners and the Truck Farm, that aim to bring fresh produce to food deserts (parts of the city where such food is scarce or financially out of reach) through an approach that involves and benefits stores, customers, and neighborhoods.
Access to real food in all DC neighborhoods
Cheap eats—highly processed snacks and convenience foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional value—are abundant everywhere, and for many, they offer an inexpensive way to satisfy hunger. But for too many communities, processed snacks are all that is available, because fresh, nutritious food either is not sold where people live or is too expensive for them to buy regularly.
Huan believes that affordable, nutritious food should be accessible in every neighborhood in DC, not just the affluent ones. The lack of nutritious food in low-income areas contributes to poor health and can make it hard for kids to succeed at school (and adults at work), adding to the many challenges they already face. She and her colleagues at DC Central Kitchen are working with communities and businesses to increase the availability of nutritious and affordable food in DC’s food deserts.
“We want to provide people with access to nutritious food,” she says.
Healthy Corners finds convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods that are located in high-traffic areas without a nearby grocery store, places where fresh produce is not available. Healthy Corners works with shop owners who are interested in participating in the program to make fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious foods and snacks available in their stores.
Normally, the cost of procuring a small amount of perishable produce would be too high for a small corner store in a low-income area, but Healthy Corners buys it in bulk for all 36 participating stores, and store owners order only what they need from DC Central Kitchen.
The program works with the store owners to look at what they sell, who their customers are, and what their customers want to buy. It then helps the stores market the products through attractive branded displays and periodic cooking demonstrations on the stores’ high-traffic days.
Healthy Corners breaks down barriers
Even city residents who are lucky enough to have access to affordable vegetables and fruits may never have had a chance to see how they grow. To give them a glimpse, Truck Farm brings rows of herbs, lettuces, strawberries, and other garden vegetables to them—in the back of a pickup truck.
Since 2011, the travelling garden has been going to city events, Healthy Corners cooking demonstrations, and to schools, where kids can see how a tomato plant or a head of lettuce grows. Cooking demonstrations feature some of the vegetables that are growing in the truck, so people can see the link between a garden and a meal.
Kids play an important role in making Healthy Corners work. Through DCCK’s Healthy School Food program, kids learn about the benefits of fresh food and are given a voice in how to eat it: At cooking demonstrations in schools, students sample a given ingredient—say, kale—in three different recipes. They vote on the best-tasting recipe, and that dish is later featured in the school cafeteria. Huan says that, given the chance to pick their favorite dish, the kids are often more open-minded about new foods than their parents. To make it as easy as possible to include new dishes in their families’ diets, the program gives the students recipe cards and a list of nearby stores that participate in Healthy Corners where they can buy the ingredients.
The Healthy Corners model is succeeding because it aligns its goals with those of the store owners and customers. The stores want to attract customers, and one way to do that is to show they care by offering healthful food.
“The shop owners are happy to take ownership of the program and promote it, because customers like it,” says Huan.
It also increases their chances of winning DC government “Great Streets” capital improvement grants to improve storefront facades or upgrade equipment. More attractive stores and happier customers are good for business and the neighborhood.
DC Central Kitchen has received a second grant from DC’s Department of Small and Local Business Development to expand Healthy Corners to 30 more stores this summer. Huan hopes the program will “take down barriers”—she means both the plexiglass windows that are all too common in stores as well as the barriers to food security that low-income communities face.
She sees it as part of the larger food movement advocating healthy, sustainable food systems that benefit everyone.
“The food movement is a long process, like the women’s movement and civil rights movements. We’re at the beginning of that process,” she says. “I want Healthy Corners to be a household name; I want fresh fruit and vegetables to be as available as Coca Cola.”
Check out our staff on Let’s Talk Live this week, featuring our efforts to fight hunger and promote healthy eating. We’re excited to be part of this Home Cooking vs. Hunger Week. A huge thanks to Walmart and NewsChannel 8 for promoting our work.
This month marks the roll out of DC Central Kitchen’s Truck Farm, and we’re excited to be delivering our nutrition education lessons to children around the city to teach them about healthy eating and where their food comes from.
Truck Farm is exactly what it sounds like—a pick-up truck with a garden planted in its bed. Our partnership with the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, allows us to take the farm to the ten schools where we serve healthy school lunches in wards 5, 7, and 8. The whole idea is that kids can see, touch, and learn about healthy food in an interesting and dynamic way that will make an impact because it’s fun and different.
“Let’s go around and say our name, favorite fruit, and favorite vegetable. What’s yours?” asked Huan Song, DCCK’s Nutrition and Outreach Coordinator turning to one of the seven years olds gathered around the truck farm, parked at Thomas Elementary School in Deanwood, located in D.C.’s Ward 7.
The Truck Farm inspires the kids to come up with creative places to investigate nature, whether by growing a small plant on their window sills or even in an old can. After checking out the Truck Farm, Thomas Elementary students planted their own arugula seeds in plastic cups to start their own urban gardens.
“I’m really excited about Truck Farm’s fourth growing season,” says Huan. Like previous years, the Truck Farm educators will bring our mobile classroom to community health events, schools, and summer care programs in order to connect children with the process of growing food. In addition to our focus on nutrition education through hands on learning, the curriculum this year will also expand to integrate language arts education through our partnership with the DC Public Library.
The Truck Farm program continues to partner with DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy School Food and Healthy Corners Programs in order to reinforce our organization’s multifaceted approach to nutrition education and community empowerment. We’re excited to see where it goes next! Follow @dcck on Twitter for the latest updates.
The DC Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) is providing DC Central Kitchen with a $250,000 grant to double the number of stores participating in Healthy Corners. Healthy Corners is the first program of its kind aimed at combating food deserts and making healthier food more available in DC’s low income communities. Since 2011, DC Central Kitchen has partnered with 33 corner stores to provide fresh produce and healthy snacks at the stores, which are often the closest affordable grocery option. With the DSLBD grant, DC Central Kitchen will expand the program to 63 stores this summer.
The grant will help DC Central Kitchen continue its important work of providing the District’s underserved communities with healthy food. DC Central Kitchen has been instrumental in leveraging their resources to provide valuable services to vulnerable populations, and we are very grateful for their work.
The agency’s partnership with DC Central Kitchen began two years ago when they funded the initial rollout of the program through a six-month pilot period. The program has since worked with many partners, including DC Department of Health, CoBANK, Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, NBC Universal, Tavis Smiley-UMD, Wallace Genetic Foundation and the McGuinn Family Foundation. By providing strategic marketing support and heavily discounted product, Healthy Corners has brought DC’s corner stores into the healthy food business. In 2013, the participating stores grossed over $40,000 in sales and sold over 7,500 nutritious snacks.
Today represents a proven approach to public-private partnerships in D.C. Thanks to the Department of Small and Local Business Development, we now have the resources to expand into new neighborhoods, making healthy food more affordable and accessible to District residents.
Visit our Healthy Corners page for more information about the program.