Updates for School Food
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was once quoted saying: “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” That concept is embodied by one of our staff members and Culinary Job Training (CJT) graduates, Crystal Marshall.
Crystal is living proof that with enough drive and passion, a person can truly turn their life around. After returning home from prison with a felony on her record, Crystal knew she would have to build her life up from scratch. At age 30, she had no prior work experience and nothing to her name except a very supportive family, and more than a little ambition.
After returning home from prison, Crystal began volunteering at a local nonprofit called Friendship Place in order to gain community service hours as terms of her release. It was here that she learned about DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program. Crystal wanted to live a life of purpose; she wanted to find a way to do something she enjoyed, while also earning a living wage, and she knew this would be a difficult task with a felony on her record. She had never cooked before, but wanted to find a way to gain marketable skills, allowing her to find more than just a job, but a career. So, she set out to pursue her goals – a woman on a mission.
“I didn’t want to just learn how to do something and get a job; I wanted to acquire a skill that I could use to get other jobs. So, I focused on learning, as opposed to just being there. I showed up every morning on time, excited about being there.”
Upon graduating from CJT in January 2013, Crystal began working at Geppetto Catering in Riverdale, Maryland. Six months later, Crystal was hired by DCCK to work in our School Food program for which we serve up 4,300 locally-sourced, scratch-cooked meals to low-income D.C. schoolchildren every day. Only one year after joining the School Food team, Crystal found herself promoted to a supervisor position. She now works in DC Central Kitchen’s Nutrition Lab in Northeast, DC, overseeing her team of 12 staff as they all work together to meet each day’s quota of healthy meals for 10 schools in the District.
Not missing a beat since choosing to change her life’s path, Crystal not only has a job she loves, but has nearly completed a degree in computer science as well. Crystal climbed onto a moving train that’s not stopping anytime soon. She feels she has recreated herself. As this incredible young woman continues to beat the odds, it seems only the sky is the limit for her.
Summer means logistical modifications at DC Central Kitchen when we adjust staffing for the changing school schedule and accommodate the huge volume of produce we source from local farms.
When the 10 schools to which we provide meal service let out for the summer, many staff members of our school food team jump into production mode to process the seasonal fruits and vegetables we purchase.
Last year, we purchased more than 200,000 pounds of produce from local farmers – reinforcing our support of local businesses while sourcing nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables we need for our meals. Where most grocery stores will turn away blemished produce, DCCK will purchase these items of the wrong size, shape, or color at a reduced cost and use them in our meals. This win-win scenario means farmers earn a profit without wasting their crops, and we’re able to save money while investing in local businesses.
Rather than source a number of different items that make menu planning more challenging for our school food staff, this summer our procurement team sourced items that stand up well to freezing, thawing, and cooling – like cabbage, collard greens, corn, yellow squash, zucchini, and tomatoes. This produce is washed, cut, sealed in vacuum sealed bags, and then frozen until we need it again when school resumes in the fall.
Where our daily meals for local nonprofits and other social service agencies rely heavily on donated items, our school food meals are planned well in advance with purchased items. This careful thought of what produce we source not only supports our year-long school menu planning, but processing more labor intensive produce in advance also means that our school food team will spend less time preparing these items during the school year as they’ve already been processed and frozen.
We are capturing produce at the height of its seasonality, which means we are able to capitalize on the nutrient content of that produce when it’s at its best. When something is picked ripe and immediately processed, you lock in that delicious flavor that seasonal produce has to offer. Thus, our processing allows for produce that not only tastes better, but is better for you.
Already this summer we’ve bulk processed more than 13,000 pounds of produce. At DC Central Kitchen, we’re not only committed to providing healthy and locally-sourced food for children in DC, but we’re equally as committed to being reliable business partners. Through our purchasing, we’ve invested more than $7,200 with local farmers including the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction and Public House Produce, a local family farm located in Luray, Virginia.
Restructuring our process to accommodate summer’s bounty is complex, but it’s a win-win for our staff, students, local farmers, and inventory!
Our nutrition outreach team joined the 4th and 5th graders during their “Junior Coach” training at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy with Playworks DC, a national organization that brings positive play and physical activity to schools. The students attend six DC public schools in low-income areas across DC’s Wards 7 and 8.
To make it approachable for the students, our team used simple recipes with 3 or fewer ingredients —each snack took only about 5 minutes to prepare! Students also went home with recipe cards to create the snacks again at home.
DC Central Kitchen and Playworks are already planning for further ways to partner and provide nutrition education and physical activity promotion for DC’s youth. To learn more about DC Central Kitchen’s community nutrition outreach, visit http://www.dccentralkitchen.org/healthyfutures/.
“Good business” is a phrase we use a lot here at DC Central Kitchen. Good business means using every available resource to create positive outcomes, like when we employ chronically underemployed men and women from our Culinary Job Training program to serve healthy, locally sourced meals to 3,200 children at 10 low-income DC schools. That’s not charity—that’s good business for everyone.
But with summer approaching, the majority of DC’s schools will close from June to August, which means that most of our city’s school food staffers will be laid off while children who rely on school meals will have to look elsewhere for basic nutrition.
School closures make summer a time of hunger, even while local farms are producing excess amounts of fruits and vegetables just miles away. But DCCK has a solution. By providing full-time, year-round employment and health benefits to our school food staff, we can enlist them in the fight against summer hunger. Half of these DCCK employees will prepare healthy, kid-friendly meals and snacks for 30 summer camps and youth programs. The other half will work on processing, freezing, and storing summer’s bounty from local farms to ensure our access to quality fruits and vegetables year-round.
This approach will have a powerful impact on our community. All told this summer, we will:
- Procure and process 122,000 pounds of fresh, local produce,
- Invest $55,000 in area farmers,
- Prepare 75,000 nutritious summer meals and snacks for kids,
- Save DC summer youth programs $155,000 in food and personnel costs, and
- Provide meaningful, living wage employment to 15 DCCK culinary staffers.
Although we won’t be generating revenue from our school foods program during the summer months, DCCK will maintain employee salaries and benefits, purchase local produce in bulk, and deliver summer meals to low-income children who need them. Providing stable summer employment to at-risk adults, critical nutrition for kids, and vital wholesale revenue to local farmers growing healthy food is more than just the right thing to do. It’s good business, too.
Click here if you’d like to help make an investment in this strategic summer effort to fight child hunger, prevent the waste of healthy farm products, and sustain life-changing employment opportunities for our culinary graduates.
Thank you for supporting DC Central Kitchen. Your contribution is an investment in our work to combat hunger and create opportunity in DC.
For the fourth year in a row, DC Central Kitchen’s school foods team was chosen to prep, cook, and plate more than 100 dishes based on recipes submitted by young people in all 50 states. The catch? It had to be done in a mere three hours!
First Lady Michelle Obama, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Education teamed up again this year to create the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge & Kids’ State Dinner – a competition that engages kids ages 8-12 in creating an original, healthy recipe. Finalists’ recipes were cooked and plated by DCCK on May 15th for the official judging, and one winner from each of the 50 states will be selected and have the opportunity to attend a Kids’ State Dinner at the White House in July.
It took more than a week’s worth of planning to prepare for last week’s event, which included recipes like sriracha shrimp over quinoa with vegetables, a sweet turkey chili with kidney beans, and fish tacos. Judges included Debra Eschmeyer of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, representatives from the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture, as well as two kid graduates of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters class.
DC Central Kitchen’s culinary team while busy in the week’s leading up to the judging, were well-suited to cook and plate the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge kid-created recipes. As the primary school food provider for 10 DC schools, DC Central Kitchen knows a thing or two about developing meals kids will actually eat. From our Fresh Feature Friday taste-testing activity that engages young people in their very own lunchtime ‘food democracy,’ to the 6,300 locally-sourced, scratch-cooked, healthy meals served every day to kids in DC’s low-income communities – DCCK has what it takes to meet the incredible task of assembling more than 100 healthy recipes in a short period of time.
You can learn more about our school foods program in our latest annual report.
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!