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, one that operates with the efficiency of a for-profit entity while 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.”



Our supporters helped raise $55,000 for a new Healthy Corners delivery truck!

, March 23rd, 2015

Thank you for supporting DCCK!

With the help of many generous donors, we met our goal to purchase a new delivery truck!

 

DC Central Kitchen’s one-of-a-kind Healthy Corners program more than doubled the number of locations last summer from 28 stores to 67. To keep up with our growing delivery routes, we drafted an aging, unrefrigerated van into service and made do. But with summer approaching, we needed help to buy a truck that could keep produce cool and looking good despite Washington, DC’s brutal heat and humidity.

We needed the new refrigerated delivery truck to meet the incredible demand for fresh fruits and vegetables among DC residents in low-income neighborhoods costs $55,000. To help us reach our goal, the Carter and Melissa Cafritz Charitable Trust  issued a $15,000 matching grant which we met on Friday, April 10! Their support brought us to our goal of $55,000!

Thanks to the support of our generous donors, we are able to purchase a new truck that will bring affordable fruits and vegetables to our neighbors who rely on Healthy Corners for access to nutritious foods.

Our Healthy Corners program launched in 2011 with the goal of bringing affordable, high-quality produce and nutritious snacks to corner stores in Washington, DC’s ‘food deserts.’ These are parts of the city where widespread poverty and underdevelopment mean that residents have limited or no access to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or other providers of healthy food. 71% of residents of DC’s food deserts are overweight or obese and 15% have diabetes.

We wanted our neighbors to have healthy choices. So Healthy Corners teamed up with small corner stores to give them the training, refrigerators, and heavily discounted wholesale deliveries of nutritious food they needed to finally sell healthy options at prices their customers could afford. And the community responded, purchasing 141,368 healthy items in 2014! A second refrigerated truck will allow us to deliver 104,000 additional items to participating corner stores in 2015.

And a new truck will allow us to do more than just keep food fresh in transit. With a second truck available, we can make smaller, twice-weekly deliveries to stores we currently visit just once a week. That means more appealing fruits and vegetables on the shelf, less waste of overripe produce, and more nourishing foods purchased.

Because of you, we raised enough funds to help purchase a new refrigerated delivery truck for Healthy Corners. We’ll be ready for summer deliveries and can continue to ensure our neighbors have access to healthy, affordable food. Thank you for supporting DC Central Kitchen! 

 



8 simple rules for righteous entrepreneurs

, February 27th, 2015

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’s Chow-Chow Now Available at Whole Foods!

, November 18th, 2014

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If you didn’t make it to the Capital Food Fight™ last Tuesday, or happen to read the article in The Washington Post last Wednesday, then you probably haven’t heard that DCCK has made our first foray into the supermarket food manufacturing space! That’s right, our Chow-Chow, a sweet, pickled relish made from a combination of vegetables and served cold, is now available on Whole Foods Market olive bars and packaged in ‘to go’ containers at the Tenleytown, Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, and P Street locations.

Like all of our social enterprise activities, DCCK will produce and distribute the Chow-Chow out of our Nutrition Lab kitchen facility located in Northeast DC, and each batch will be prepared by graduates of our Culinary Job Training program.

Chow-Chow can be eaten by itself or as a savory condiment on fish, poultry, crackers, and a variety of other foods. Head over to your local Whole Foods and try it for yourself – 100% percent of proceeds support DCCK!



DC Central Kitchen Appears on ‘The Chew’

, October 2nd, 2014

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Yesterday, DC Central Kitchen staff, graduates, and friends grew a little bit closer to each other as we shared in the delight of seeing our very own CJT graduate Howard Thomas on ABC’s hit cooking-themed daytime talk show, “The Chew.”

The show dedicated a significant amount of air time to portraying the work of the Kitchen and our graduates. Howard, who is currently the lead production cook at Washington Jesuit Academy for our Healthy School Food program, did such an incredible job representing the Kitchen and sharing his story in front of a live studio audience!

Thank you Carla Hall, Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Clinton Kelly, Daphne Oz and the entire crew of “The Chew” for highlighting our work and our mission to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities.

Check out a short clip of yesterday’s episode here!



From Campus Kitchen to Corner Store: Huan Song and DCCK Bring Good Food Where it’s Needed Most

, August 13th, 2014

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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 6Huan 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.”