Updates for Social Enterprise
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.”
2014 marks DC Central Kitchen’s 25th Anniversary – and we’re proud of our real results from the past year. Looking forward, 2014 promises to be an exciting year where we can expand our impact and take on unfinished business. Here are some of our New Year’s Resolutions for this year:
Double Number Of Participating Healthy Corners Stores
Through new partnerships, we’re undertaking an ambitious goal: doubling the number of corner stores participating in our Healthy Corners program to make affordable healthy snacks and fresh produce more available in DC’s most food insecure neighborhoods.
Expand the Culinary Job Training Program
Last year, we expanded our Culinary Job Training Program to two new sites: N Street Village and Arlington County. This year, we will continue expanding our offsite programs to increase the number of students we train.
Promote Long-Term Progress of Culinary Grads
Once our graduates are employed, that’s not the end of their relationship with DC Central Kitchen! We continue to cultivate our community of Culinary Graduates to ensure they have the support network in place to stay employed. This year, we’ve made crucial investments to strengthen that support network with the recent additions of a full-time clinical social worker and retention coordinator.
Utilize Healthier Ingredients in Agency Meals
We at DC Central Kitchen believe that everyone deserves a quality, home-cooked meal! Our agency meals are healthier and higher in quality than ever before, and we want to continue that progress by incorporating more fresh ingredients and scratch preparation into the 5,000 meals we prepare every day for 88 DC nonprofits.
Hire More Graduates!
Our social enterprises provide many employment opportunities for our Culinary Grads – and this year, we plan to hire more as we expand our School Food and Healthy Corners programs.
We couldn’t do our work without our growing list of business partnerships. Here’s a recap of their amazing contributions.
Restaurants have always been an integral part of what we do. It all started in 1989 when our founder, Robert Egger, started recovering food from local restaurants, hotels, and catering operations to be used in meals to feed hungry district residents. Since then, restaurants have given us much more than leftovers. From participating in our events to providing internships and job opportunities for our culinary students, restaurants are the bread and butter of what makes DC Central Kitchen work.
When we do have to buy food, we’re committed to buying local. In 2012, we invested $156,523 into our area economy by purchasing produce and meat from area farmers. We increased the total poundage of locally sourced food in our meals by 22% from 2011. Last year, 30% of all of the ingredients used in our school meals were locally sourced.
DC Corner Stores
We’re combating poor health and creating opportunities for small businesses through Healthy Corners, our wholesale delivery service that provides fresh fruits and veggies to communities without fully stocked supermarkets. In 2012, our 30 partner corner stores sold $33,000 worth of fresh produce.
In 2012, our Nutrition Lab facility in Northeast DC facilitated the recovery of 320,000 pounds of fresh produce from local food distributors. These are good fruits and veggies that are fresh and healthy, but are not perfect enough for sale. Our relationships with these distributors have led them to increase their donations over the years, allowing us to make our donations go further.
Last year, we received over $432,949 dollars in workplace giving campaign contributions from employees working at local businesses and government agencies based in the region. We’re proud of their support and their efforts to get more involved in our work by volunteering and hosting group fundraisers.
DC Central Kitchen receives significant financial and in-kind support from local corporate partners. We’re proud to have many of our corporate partners listed as top corporate philanthropists by the Washington Business Journal, including Capital One, Clark Enterprises, Lockheed Martin, Marriott International, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, Geppetto Catering, and many others.
The most common misconception about DC Central Kitchen is that we’re a soup kitchen. Here are 4 ways we are very different.
DC Central Kitchen doesn’t serve meals. Unlike a soup kitchen, no one lines up at our door to receive a meal. Using recycled food from the community and an army of volunteers, our main kitchen in the basement of the largest shelter in America produces 5,000 meals every day that are distributed to nearly 100 partner agencies around the city. The meals we produce help defray food costs of the agencies we serve, allowing them to focus more of their limited resources on their unique programming.
DC Central Kitchen is not a feeding organization. Simply feeding more people is not our goal. Food is a tool, a gateway, to make people’s lives better. With every meal we distribute comes a message of empowerment. Through our 14 week Culinary Job Training Program, we’re shortening the line of hungry people and breaking the cycle of dependency by providing real opportunities for people to make their lives better through hard work.
Our volunteers work alongside the people they are helping. This is different than a soup kitchen, where volunteers are working behind a sneeze guard barrier. At DC Central Kitchen, our volunteers chop and dice alongside students and graduates from our 14 week Culinary Job Training Program, which includes men and women just out of prison, individuals who were formally homeless, and people that once suffered from addictions. It’s not just about chopping and dicing. We’re challenging stereotypes about “the poor” and “the hungry” in the process.
We’ve pioneered social enterprise. We don’t get by pleading for pennies. Through our healthy meals for DC Public Schools, in-house catering business, and partnership with corner stores to provide fresh produce, we’re generating 60% of our own revenue, becoming more sustainable, and providing innovative solutions to combat hunger and promote health in the community. All of our social enterprise projects employ our culinary graduates at living wages and provide more opportunities for those who were previously dependent on society to give back.
As other nonprofits struggle in this sputtering economy, we’re seizing new opportunities. In only 6 years, we’ve doubled in size and scope, to an $11 million poverty-fighting powerhouse. This tremendous growth would not be possible without our revenue generating social ventures.
While our donations have increased every year, so have our chances to create new revenue for our programs and jobs for our clients. By employing our culinary graduates, we’re delivering on the promise of empowerment through work.
By serving healthy meals to DC schools, nonprofits, and catering clients, we’re tipping the scale and earning over 60 percent of our income. What does this mean to donors? This means that unlike too many other nonprofits, we’re always looking at ways embrace an entrepreneurial attitude. We’re not just begging for small change. We’re driving big changes in our own sector through social enterprise.
Through these experiments and enterprises, we’re doing things that others said were impossible. We’re running a full-service catering company using graduates from our Culinary Job Training program, most of whom are ex-offenders. Our healthy school meals are punching through nutritional barriers and changing the way children eat. We’re partnering with corner stores and serving as a wholesale delivery service, providing fresh produce and healthy snacks to our city’s ‘food deserts.’
Our model stands apart because for every dollar raised from our donors, the return on investment is not just intangible program outcomes. We match these donations with our own entrepreneurial revenue, multiplying our donors’ impact while modeling responsible business practices. Very few nonprofits see their work as creating financial returns. Our dividends support the social AND financial health of our community.
And those outcomes are not merely ancillary to our mission. Creating jobs and changing eating behaviors is an essential part of who we are and what we do. We’re proving that nonprofits can create substantial community benefits while stretching the power of of donations with an entrepreneurial approach.
This post, republished from The Huffington Post, kicks off our Job Raising Campaign. You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.
Lots of smart, good, hard-working people give their time, money, and energy to DC Central Kitchen because they think we’re a great charity. We are thrilled that people support us because they feel we are doing the right thing or the good thing, but we really hope people understand that what we are doing is the smart thing.
For too long those of us in the nonprofit sector have been happy to fit ourselves into the charity model – give us your pennies and we’ll solve your dollar problems – but we have to be honest and say that that simply isn’t getting us to the place we need to be. We may have the heart of a nonprofit, but our brain is all business. In fact, today, we are an $11 million per year business – and our leading product is empowerment. The difference between us and a “regular” business, however, is that business is in it to make money; we’re in it to make change.
At DCCK, our social enterprises, which include the production of nearly 5,000 healthy, scratch-cooked school meals each day and a gourmet catering company that generated $1.3 million in revenue last year, are not separate from our social service programs. Instead, they are extensions of our mission. We operate two busy commercial kitchens here in the District of Columbia, staffed almost entirely with graduates of our Culinary Job Training program. The men and women we train come to us after extended stays in prison cells, at drug rehabilitation programs, or on the welfare rolls. First, we help them get their heads right. Next, we give them tangible skills for work in the culinary industry. Finally, we help them find jobs. Many find those jobs at DC Central Kitchen.
Today, 68 graduates of our program work for us. Every new hire starts at a living wage – in DC, that’s $12.50 an hour, with 100% paid health benefits, life insurance, paid sick leave and a company matched retirement plan. We didn’t start offering these packages because we had lots of money to spare. We did it to model to other employers, nonprofit and for-profit, that they can pay people well, provide great products and services, and still show a profit at the end of the day.
Now, after three years of rapid growth in our social enterprise activities, we have lots of that proof. Our Healthy School Food program is earning month-to-month profits, exceeding student participation targets, and providing schools in low-income DC neighborhoods with higher quality food service than they have ever had. Our catering company saw significant revenue growth in 2012, thanks to our expansion into a new kitchen facility. We’ve even begun delivering fresh produce and nutritious, handmade snacks to 29 corner stores in Washington’s ‘food deserts.’ In just the fourth quarter of last year, those participating retailers topped $10,000 in sales, showing that the residents of these communities will make healthy choices – they just need the opportunity, knowledge, and means to do so.
At DC Central Kitchen, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on local farm products each year, pay living wages, and train men and women that others have written off as helpless, or even hopeless, for real careers. We don’t do these things because they make us feel good. We don’t do them because donors tell us to. We do these things because they are the smartest things we can do in service of our community and our common future.