Updates for School Food
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!
DCCK Opens New Baking Corner to Provide Healthy, Whole Grain Snacks and Baked Goods to 35 Afterschool Programs
On August 7th we celebrated the official opening of DC Central Kitchen’s new Baking Corner! Thanks to key investments from our friends and partners, and a generous matching grant from the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, DCCK is able to bring our healthy baking program to fruition.
Back in April we announced DC Central Kitchen Production Manager William Ferrell’s concept for an innovative baking program at DCCK, for which he hoped to create healthy, whole grain snacks and breads for the afterschool programs we serve. William, who came to DC Central Kitchen in 2010 after being released from prison, was a student in our Culinary Job Training program and now serves on staff as a supervisor in the Kitchen. With a long held passion for baking, and a personal interest area for culinary growth, William realized he could make our snacks for afterschool programs more nutritious and less costly by doing more baking on-site and relying less on packaged, processed foods.
William creatively uses ingredients such as natural sweeteners and avocados to make traditional favorites, like banana bread and cheesecake, much healthier. For the Baking Corner opening, William shared samples of some of his original baked goods recipes, including pumpkin bread with lower sugar content, and whole wheat biscuits. Our guests indulged in his healthy treats while exploring some of the new equipment purchased for the Baking Corner. Among several items that now make up this new space, William and his team have access to multiple stand mixers and special attachments, a proofing box to help bread rise, a wood work table for rolling dough, and lots of new baking pans.
We can only achieve our mission to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities with the help of our many partners. Because of this support, William, his team, and the more than 15,000 volunteers that work in the Kitchen each year are now able to put his ideas into action by working in this space to create new, innovative snacks and healthy meal concepts for our partners. We’re excited to leverage the talent and passion of our culinary staff and dedicated volunteers to ensure that the afterschool programs for low-income children that rely on our meals receive healthy and nutritious snacks that fuel their minds and future success!
Join us at the Kitchen to check out this awesome new baking space and help put William’s brainchild into action.
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.
DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy School Food Program was recently featured on radio show, Inside School Food, representing our work to transform childhood nutrition at DC schools and what it means for the broader community. We’re excited about this opportunity to talk in-depth about the program.
Here’s a description from the Heritage Radio Network’s Website:
“This week’s episode of Inside School Food is the first installment of a series of episodes we’re calling “And Now for Something Completely Different,” in which we profile programs and business models that upend common assumptions about what’s possible in school food. In the schools served by not-for-profit DC Central Kitchen, children formerly accustomed to pizza and breaded chicken fingers eagerly chow down on house-made fresh food that routinely includes beets, cauliflower, and collards. The skilled staff who prepare it are people who have emerged from stressful life circumstances with the help of DCCK culinary job training. For DCCK, good school food is not an end in itself, but a cornerstone to a larger, community agenda.”
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Through our Healthy School Food Program, DC Central Kitchen has moved beyond simply feeding kids to equipping them with the crucial lessons they need to live healthier futures. Our priority is making these lessons engaging and fun so the students take that knowledge home. This is why our presence at the schools is so important beyond the meals we serve.
This Wednesday, our team was at Thomas Elementary for the annual Strawberries & Salad Greens event. DCCK’s Katie Nash, School Food Program Manager and Registered Dietitian, says that the event was a great opportunity to feature the local produce we procure daily while teaching kids about the food system.
It’s one of my favorite events of the year because it celebrates food in a delicious and fun way and students consider the strawberries an extra treat. I have also never seen so much excitement over salad greens before!
The lunchtime event included a taste testing of DCCK’s Summery Strawberry Salad, which was quite popular. “I have one word, three syllables for that salad: DE-LIC-IOUS,” said one female student. We received quite a few thumbs up and requests for more samples at the event.
After lunch, the students were lead outside where they were engaged in growing lessons via DCCK’s Truck Farm, a traveling, edible exhibit that allows D.C.’s urban youth to “dig in” to where their food comes from. The students also planted their own lettuce seeds to take home and asked many questions about gardening in their own backyards.
By providing kids with the opportunity to taste new healthy foods and engage with the mobile Truck Farm exhibit, we’re making amazing breakthroughs and generating excitement about fruits and vegetables.
We would like to thank all of the DCCK staff who came out to support this outstanding event through the lessons and meal preparation: Katie Nash, Ed Kwitowski, Shay McCray, Janell Walker, Huan Song, Senita Harrison, Laquita Simms, Renita Harrison, and Maya Munoz.
This week, America’s fight over school food took another disappointing turn. The overdue effort to make school food healthy, local, and dignified is meeting resistance. In short, because providers are only paid when students eat the meals they serve—not just when they serve them—pushback from kids about healthier menus is cutting into provider revenues. Some fear that the business of school food is about to become less lucrative, thanks to recent improvements in national nutrition standards.
If that’s true, then these providers need to rethink how they do their business. The old way of doing school food, which included sourcing the cheapest possible products and sometimes indulging the lowest common denominator of kids’ diets, is outdated. Instead of lobbying for the way things were, it’s time for school food providers to adapt, innovate, and find new economies of scale. You can’t make ‘disrupt’ your favorite corporate buzzword and then complain when your generations-old business model gets disrupted.
But here at DC Central Kitchen, we’re generous, so we’re happy to offer our fellow school food providers some helpful tips. First, if kids aren’t eating your food, maybe the problem is less about regulations than your own recipes. In 2010, when we started serving healthy meals in DC Public Schools, our participation rates plummeted. But then we started capturing student feedback through taste tests and getting them excited about healthy eating through hands-on demonstrations. And that’s how we doubled student consumption of sweet potatoes and broccoli within a month of seeing our recipes rejected.
DCCK is fortunate that our great partners at DCPS and in the DC government provide an additional subsidy above the USDA reimbursement rate to ensure that we can use healthy, local ingredients in our scratch-cooked meals (and pay our employees a living wage and full benefits). Every locality should look at what DC is doing in this arena and learn from it, because while school food is a business, it’s also so much more than that. It is a public good and a vital means of investing in children’s long-term productivity. While companies should earn reasonable returns over time, their operations must be measured by more than quarterly earnings. But we know raising taxes would be even less popular than raising basic nutrition standards.
So, while we’re rethinking recipes, let’s revamp some business plans, too. School food could be revolutionized through social impact bonds focused on improving childhood health and academic outcomes, because the core revenue stream is already supported by federal and many local funds. Philanthropists could go beyond installing salad bars and begin making serious infrastructure investments in mission-driven community kitchens that would allow them to compete for larger foodservice contracts. And local governments could get serious about creating super-kitchens, consolidating meal production for schools, senior citizens, and homeless shelters in purposeful ways that are paired with job training services (credit to Robert Egger).
It’s time to stop delaying and playing partisan games. An outdated business model has been disrupted. Let’s embrace that disruption with creativity and innovation.