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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DCCK guest post: A visitor from across the pond

, March 31st, 2015

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My name is Vikas, and I’m the CEO of a group of companies based in Manchester, United Kingdom.  I spend about one third of all my time on philanthropic projects. I had read a lot over the years about DC Central Kitchen, and during a recent visit to an international trade summit in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pay them a visit.

A wonderfully warm greeting was my first experience of DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), and within minutes of arriving and I was engrossed in conversation with a smartly dressed and confident woman, Tarina (pictured above), in a DC Central Kitchen uniform telling me about how wonderful this organization was.  It was just half an hour later that this woman would tell me her story, describing how she was an ex-convict, spent part of her life homeless, and never thought she would ever get away from her drug and alcohol addictions.  My host (Andy, the organization’s COO) also told me that when he first met this lady she was introverted, isolated and broken.  Just one year later, here she was – one of the warmest, happiest and most confident people you could wish to meet, a transformation she attributes to DC Central Kitchen.

In 25 years, DCCK has grown from being an idea to becoming an organization with an annual budget of $13 million and more than 150 employees. The numbers are staggering: DC Central Kitchen prepares and distributes close to 1 million meals a year for local nonprofits, including homeless shelters, rehabilitation clinics, and afterschool programs. Aside from the (obvious) nutritional impact, their meal distribution program also saves their nonprofit partners close to $3.7 million in food costs.

Given that close to 100% of their Culinary Job Training program cohort arrived facing severe life challenges – the majority having periods of incarceration, drug or alcohol abuse issues, and chronic unemployment – it’s incredible that in 2014, the program’s graduates had a 93% job placement rate (one graduate is even a cook at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the White House).

“We want to be a model for businesses,” Andy said to me. “We’re a living wage employer, and we want to show people that you can run a business, change lives, and make a profit in the process…”

Similarly unusual in the sector is the distance they manage to keep between the hard-reality of running a non-profit, and the soul needed to bind together souls.

A tour of the kitchen was the next wonderful part of my journey, meeting dozens of graduates of DCCK’s program whose lives had been transformed with a mix of empowerment classes, structured (paid) work opportunities, and the chance to build a new family within DCCK’s walls.  The atmosphere is light, fun, and much like a ‘start-up,’ but behind this exterior is a very serious social enterprise, operating much like the food giant SODEXO, and supporting DCCK’s training program. That’s all before we even look at their national sister organization, The Campus Kitchens Project (replicating DCCK’s core activities at college and high schools throughout the US).

By this point, I was hugely inspired by DCCK when I met Jeff Rustin. Jeff has been with the organization for just over four years and runs their daily empowerment program (and much, much, more).  He is exactly the mentor that every young person in the USA should have, and told me stories of many of the people they’ve helped, including one harrowing account of a woman who was beaten to within an inch of her life by her partner, and had put her four young kids to bed in their car for their own safety, on one of the coldest days of the year.  When Jeff reached them, the children were practically frost-bitten and he took them to hospital, along with their mother, and started working with them.  Only a short time later, the family is doing well, has a home of their own, and two of the kids are even in college. They’re so grateful, that Jeff gets a Father’s Day card from them.  This is just one of thousands of stories DCCK sees.

One of the most powerful things DC Central Kitchen has is its authenticity. This is not a charity that just means well, but one that is made up of people that have been through, experienced, and overcome the challenges that their beneficiaries face in their daily lives. Jeff recounted the story of speaking to a group of young men, who had histories of incarceration, and who were struggling to connect to him and his other speaker.

“I still know my number!” he told them (speaking of the unique number each inmate gets when they go to prison). “….I  asked these young guys, who has a number lower than mine? Come on! Stand up! Nobody did…” Having spent many of his formative years in jail (before most of his audience were even born), he has turned his life around in the most profound way possible and now helps thousands of people to do the same.  “People need to have faith, I’m not talking about God, but they need faith in something, and most of all, themselves….”

Poverty is endemic in the developed world.  Whether you go to Europe, the USA or elsewhere – behind the wonderful shiny exterior of business hotels, conferences, and tradeshows is the reality of cities where, as in the case of most American cities, one in four people are excluded from the economy.  Organizations like DC Central Kitchen give the support people need to thrive, and also- frankly- to survive, and that’s good for everyone.

During my time with DCCK, I asked a number of people I met what it was that kept them so close to the organization.  Unanimously, the answer I got from every single person was single, “family.”



Jacques Pépin’s 80th birthday and a cake made by DCCK

, March 29th, 2015

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Women’s Empowerment Class 2 got the chance to test their pastry skills last week while they worked to create one of more than 80 birthday cakes made by culinary professionals to celebrate Jacques Pépin’s 80th birthday on Friday.

The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) honored Pépin at its annual conference, which kicked-off on Friday night with a staggering 80 birthday cakes made by some of the biggest names in the culinary world, including DC Central Kitchen’s culinary students.

DCCK students had the great fortune of working with Willow co-owner and pastry chef Kate Jansen, who volunteered her time to help the class bake, build, and decorate their cake that would be presented alongside works by Spago pastry chef Della Gossett, Baltimore’s Charm City Cakes, and DC-based Paisley Fig Bakery, among many others.

The excitement didn’t end with our cake on Friday night. On Sunday, DCCK was again recognized by the IACP during their awards luncheon where DCCK CEO Mike Curtin accepted the Local Community Service Award on behalf of the Kitchen. The award recognizes the work of a member of the local community who has had an important and indelible impact on the Annual Conference host city.

DCCK was honored to be involved in this incredible weekend with IACP. For providing Chef Pépin’s 80 cakes experience for our students, for recognizing DCCK for our work impacting DC residents, and for the countless other internships, jobs, and opportunities provided by culinary professionals to our graduates – thank you!



Breaking the rules for Spring Break at DCCK

, March 20th, 2015

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For most college students, Spring Break means more than traveling to tropical destinations. We see this firsthand at DC Central Kitchen during the months of March and April when we welcome floods of eager young people looking to make a difference.

For years we’ve welcomed to our kitchen hundreds of young people from across the globe that choose to spend their Spring Breaks partaking in service projects, learning about different people and places, and being active citizens in their community.

So far, 2015 has been no exception. In the last two weeks alone we have hosted approximately 250 student volunteers who will work alongside our staff, mostly graduates of our Culinary Job Training program, to help process more than 3,000 pounds of healthy produce during their three-hour shift slicing and dicing.  We’re already scheduled to host another 175 more for the remainder of March and April!

Thanks to these bright young people who are visiting DC for any number of reasons during their Alternative Spring Break, we’ll continue to prepare and distribute 5,000 meals a day to nearby homeless shelters, afterschool programs and rehabilitation clinics.

To name just a few of our counterparts in service, by the end of April we’ll have enjoyed hosting student volunteers from colleges and universities including William and Mary, Penn State, Ithaca College, Wake Forest University, Belmont University, Pepperdine University, Kent State, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgetown University, American University, and George Washington University.

Thanks to everyone who has given their time in service to DC Central Kitchen and to bettering the lives of our neighbors here in DC. If you enjoyed your experience and it was your first touch point to the issues of food waste and food insecurity, we’d encourage you to look into whether your school has a Campus Kitchen.

The Campus Kitchens Project is our national sister organization that empowers student volunteers to fight hunger in their community. At each of the 43 Campus Kitchens nationwide, students lead efforts to combat food waste and hunger by collecting surplus food from on-campus dining halls, community gardens, restaurants, and grocery stores and transforming it into healthy meals. In the last academic year, Campus Kitchens across the country rescued more than 823,549 pounds of food and served 293,963 meals to 12,006 clients.

Click here to learn more about starting your own Campus Kitchen or about how to volunteer with DCCK.



Class 99 suits up for success

, March 18th, 2015

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On March 4 Culinary Job Training Class 99 visited longtime DCCK partner, A Wider Circle. The organization located in Silver Spring, MD furnishes the homes of more than 4,000 families a year and provides unlimited professional attire and accessories for those in need. With graduation and upcoming job interviews around the corner, we took the men of Class 99 to A Wider Circle to experience the tangible capstone of becoming a professional – bringing home a suit.

DC Central Kitchen and A Wider Circle have maintained a strong partnership for years. Their professional attire showroom not only includes a personal shopper to help our graduates find the right style for their personality, but the organization has also been relied upon to help our graduates find furniture for their first home. The partnership exemplifies good business for nonprofits. We’re able to focus on skilled culinary training while providing A Wider Circle with clients who are ready to use furnishings and clothing as they become self-sufficient and take on the next chapter of their lives.

DCCK Outreach Specialist Jeff Rustin says: “One thing I love about this partnership is that it really helps our students move in the right direction. They are deserving of this kind of attire and once they put it on, you can see their confidence in their smiles and the way they carry themselves.”

We’re suiting up our graduates in more ways than one. We’re preparing them for their future and a path of stability. Our dual classroom focus on personal empowerment and culinary skills is further supported by a guided job search process and mock interviews conducted by our workforce development team. Last year at DCCK we saw 96 students graduate with a 93% job placement rate. We’re proud of what our students accomplish, and it wouldn’t be possible without the wraparound services and support we receive from partners like A Wider Circle.

Come join us at Class 99′s graduation at 2pm on April 10 at the US Navy Memorial & Heritage Center to see these motivated men and women dressed to impress for their new lives ahead!



DC just investigated its homeless services providers: What’s next?

, March 9th, 2015

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Despite a whole lot of talk and a fair amount of public spending, homelessness in DC is on the rise. Clearly, something is very wrong.

Like many in our city, we read last week’s auditor’s report on the District’s programs for its homeless residents with a sour mix of interest, disappointment, and frustration. If you reviewed the report or the resulting press coverage, it might be easy to come away with one big conclusion: the District has been overcharged by at least one major nonprofit contractor responsible for serving our growing homeless population, with excessive amounts going to program administration and some funds being billed improperly in advance without adequate oversight.

We’re not auditors, so we’re in no position to comment on those facts. And we don’t blame DC’s official auditors for stressing these financial concerns (that’s what they do). And we’re truly thankful that Councilmember Cheh, Mayor Bowser, and other District leaders are provoking more dialogue about homelessness in our community.

But the conversation simply cannot end here. The report claims that the District spent “$14,016 per homeless individual in FY 2014,” which is bound to strike many observers as a big number. Couple that figure with the claim that some of the groups named in the report supposedly directed excessive amounts of funding to overhead, and it would be easy for many to assume that the District is spending too much money because nonprofit workers are lining their pockets with it.

This assumption leads to a problematic line of thinking: Let’s spend more public money on oversight, further restrict the funding and flexibility of nonprofits serving homeless individuals, and require those nonprofits to file more reports while spending less on the skilled financial and management staff responsible for the content of those reports. If they don’t comply, we’ll terminate their grants and contracts and bid them out to other groups that will do the same difficult job, but cheaper.

That won’t work. Yes, it’s clear that the District and its residents have not gotten their money’s worth for what they’ve spent on homelessness. But a disproportionate focus on overhead expenses and billing practices risks overlooking the much deeper underlying crisis of the District’s partnerships with nonprofits that serve homeless residents.

As the auditor’s report recalls, in 1993, the Federal government directed DC government to get out of the homeless services business and instead contract with a private nonprofit agency that would bring an “entrepreneurial and customer service driven” approach. Citing an Urban Institute review, the report states that the shift was intended to bring order to DC’s dysfunctional “non-system” and evolve from “warehousing” people to providing comprehensive services that promoted self-sufficiency.

For us at DC Central Kitchen, that line shook us more than any questionable line item. After 22 years, our city still has a non-system. DCCK is headquartered in the borrowed basement of one of America’s largest homeless shelters, a crumbling facility where 1,300 people are warehoused every night. Since our founding in 1989, we’ve embraced entrepreneurial approaches to helping homeless adults achieve self-sufficiency through culinary careers. But we’ve also been fortunate enough that our unique program could operate largely outside of the District’s homelessness “system” while partnering with other tireless, under-resourced nonprofits that could provide shelter and additional recovery services for our culinary students. Sadly, the operational environment that most anti-homelessness groups occupy here in DC discourages entrepreneurial approaches.

Entrepreneurship requires taking risks, rewarding success, investing in internal capacity, and attracting and retaining talented, dedicated staff. Nothing about the way our community pays for and measures homeless services promotes any of those activities. Take one troubling line from the report’s conclusion, which attempts to explain why certain homelessness initiatives may incur higher levels of “non-program costs” than others: “Serving some individuals within the homeless population—such as youth, and the disabled—pose significant challenges and the hardest to serve individuals require more time and attention by salaried employees of NGOs.” We would politely argue that there are no individuals within our city’s homeless population that do not face “significant challenges.” Setting arbitrary “non-program cost” limits for serving one population (e.g. homeless youth) versus another (say, homeless adults with no external physical disability) because one is seen as more difficult to work with (or, potentially, more valued) is exactly the type of measure that limits innovation and excludes the insight and experience of front-line professionals.

It is time to dramatically overhaul DC’s entire approach to fighting homelessness. The approach of the past 22 years has failed profoundly. But as we work to build something better—a system that emphasizes innovative programs that empower those they serve with dignity and respect—let’s remember to focus on what really matters. Accounting is less important than accountability. Maybe $14,016 a year is too much, but perhaps it’s not enough; after all, we spend up to $33,930 a year to lock away a single one of our residents in Federal prison. Let’s build a system that invites solutions and adequately invests in groups that offer them.

We thank the District government for shining a light on the shortcomings of today. Tomorrow, we hope our leaders will set the stage for a continued, focused, and open discussion about how everyone involved in the fight to end homelessness can do better, together.



Ms. Anand goes to Washington: My experience attending the State of the Union

, January 29th, 2015

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Ever since I came to DC Central Kitchen I’ve considered myself blessed by the opportunities I’ve been given and the life I’ve been able to make for myself as a graduate of the Culinary Job Training program. I enrolled in the program in January of 2011, graduated in April, and launched my first real career by joining DCCK’s Healthy School Food program. I’ve recently worked my way up to become a culinary instructor in the very same program that changed my life four years ago. I didn’t think things could get better, but on Friday, January 16, they did.

One of our board members, Lisa McGovern, is married to Rep. Jim McGovern, who represents the 2nd congressional district of Massachusetts. As an elected official, the congressman attends each State of the Union and is given one additional ticket to use as he chooses. This year, the congressman and his wife offered the ticket to DC Central Kitchen! I was honored to represent my colleagues at what was, quite simply, one of the best nights of my life.

I spent Tuesday as I would any other work day – in the kitchen teaching the 25 students currently enrolled in the Culinary Job Training program how to fabricate chicken. I wasn’t planning to leave early until one of my colleagues suggested I take a little extra time to go home and change.

By 5 p.m., my heart was pounding. The congressman invited me to meet him at his office in the Cannon House Office Building so we could walk to the Capitol together. When I arrived, I was greeted by the congressman himself, who immediately embraced me and thanked me for joining him. At this point, I was nearly dizzy from excitement.

The congressman then informed me that we were about to have dinner in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office where I would go on to meet Congresswoman Pelosi, Rep. Joe Kennedy, and an added bonus – Chef Tom Colicchio! As soon as I explained that I worked at DC Central Kitchen, several people in the room stopped to tell me what great work we’re doing in our community. I was bursting with pride for my colleagues and proud to represent all of us on this special night.

Approximately two hours before the president was due to give his State of the Union address, Congressman McGovern and I made our way to the House Chamber where he helped me find my seat for the big event. I spent the next two hours on the edge of my seat, my ears and my mind buzzing. I saw the speaker’s desk and imagined the speaker and vice president arriving. I watched the arrivals of the Supreme Court Justices, The First Lady, the Joint Chiefs of Staff – you name it!

Time flew by, and the next thing I knew, the president was introduced. My skin became numb and I could feel my cheeks begin to ache from smiling so much. All of our leaders were there together in one room, and I had a front row seat to see democracy in action.

My experience on January 20 was nothing short of spectacular. It was an honor to be in the company of our elected representatives and to represent DC Central Kitchen that evening.

To Congressman and Mrs. McGovern – thank you! I’ll never forget the night I watched the State of the Union from the House Chamber of the United States Capitol. More importantly, I’ll never forget my civic responsibility to be an active participant in our democracy. As I told my culinary students the next day, change is possible, but only if we’re willing to put in the work.