Updates for Staff Profiles
Billy Johnson is proof of what’s possible at any age. At 58, he’s already experienced a lifetime of tragedy, but that didn’t stop him from seeking something better at DC Central Kitchen.
Growing up, Billy’s mother was a live-in housekeeper who relied on the older siblings to look after Billy and his younger brother and sisters. He played football at Cardozo High School, but even that couldn’t keep him from the temptation of crime. Like too many other young men who struggled to envision a future of success without crime, Billy took to the streets.
He would spend the next 26 years in and out of the prison system on various charges. But once Billy was out of prison for good, things around him just kept falling apart. He lost his mother to a heart attack, an older brother to obesity and poor health, and a sister to breast cancer.
After all of this personal turmoil and loss, Billy enrolled in DCCK’s Culinary Job Training program last winter, ready to make a career for himself and finally start anew. A student with one of our offsite culinary classes at Central Union Mission, Billy was doing well until he lost his last living sibling in February. Without the tools to deal with such a significant loss, Billy allowed his past to take over, relapsed, and left the program.
But Billy didn’t give up. When enrollment opened for our 100th Culinary Job Training class, Billy returned to the Kitchen and asked for another chance to complete the program. As a member of Class 100, Billy was determined to succeed. He worked hard, showed up on time, and was committed to turning his life around.
On July 10, Billy celebrated with his classmates at their graduation ceremony. He had returned to the Kitchen, recommitted himself to working hard, and it paid off. Two weeks later, he joined DC Central Kitchen full-time, making $14.05 an hour as a cook preparing meals for our partner homeless shelters, afterschool programs, and halfway houses.
If you ask Billy about his new job, he’ll tell you that he loves it; that he’s being paid for something he’d just as soon do for free. With his past behind him, Billy is striving to live each day to its fullest, never take anything for granted, and give back.
When you come into a situation when you enjoy doing what you’re doing, the money has nothing to do with it. You always have to keep your past in the front of your mind; you have to have a ‘why’ when you’re going through life, because you can make it.
That’s the beauty of a job – it’s not just about self-sufficiency; it’s about having meaning in your life. After years of adversity and loss, Billy finally has that chance.
We’ve been sharing a lot recently about our 100th graduation and DCCK’s role as job creators in our community. Graduations are inspiring for lots of reasons, not just because of what the day represents for the men and women who complete the program. In the days that followed our 100th graduation, one notably inspiring story made its way around the organization.
Earl was a student of Class 100 who came to DCCK from a halfway house after spending 13 years in prison. You can’t miss him in a room — over 6 feet tall with a big build and a long beard, Earl’s smile is genuine and disarming. After incarceration, he was committed to making a career as a cook, and he approached our Culinary Job Training Program with diligence and enthusiasm. You could find Earl at any event that called for Class 100 student volunteers. In June, he even took to the outdoor grills at the Lamb Jam, a tasting event and competition that brings together talented chefs to compete for the Best Lamb Dish, to help one of the chefs keep up with demand at his tasting booth.
To commemorate our 100th graduation, DCCK was fortunate enough to receive a matching pledge of $10,000 from past and current board members, with a goal of raising another $10,000 in donations both at the ceremony and online in the days that followed.
That afternoon, Earl’s family was seated comfortably in the front row. His mother, easily recognizable given her similarly identifiable smile, was emotional before the ceremony got underway. After the announcement of our board match at the ceremony, several guests handed reply envelopes with their gifts to members of DCCK’s Development team.
A few hours later, our donor relations manager came across one particular envelope that contained a $100 bill and a short, handwritten note. “I’ve been carrying around this lucky $100 for 13 years,” the note said. “I don’t need it anymore.”
The note and generous gift was from Earl’s mother. She held on to that bill the entire time Earl was incarcerated, and on the day of his graduation from DC Central Kitchen, Earl’s mother passed on that luck to the men and women who will come to DCCK after him.
Of all of the gifts we received that day, this is the one that matters most. Earl is now employed full-time, making a living wage of $14.05/hour with full benefits as a cook at DC Central Kitchen. While we’ll never know how much luck that $100 provided, Earl’s hard work and dedication made for plenty of luck on its own. Earl has a job, a family he can spend time with, and a mother whose love for her son is truly unwavering. She retired last week, at a party attended by Earl’s culinary instructors; ending her career the same week Earl launched his.
Thank you to everyone who made a gift in honor of our 100th class. It is a milestone that represents years of hard work and changed lives for over 1,000 men and women who have come through DCCK since 1990.
To Earl’s mother – thank you for believing in your son and for supporting DC Central Kitchen through this heartfelt and generous gift.
In addition to reaching the $10,000 fundraising mark, the primary goal for the 10 for 10 campaign is for every staff member to make a donation to support their DC Central Kitchen family. Staff who support DC Central Kitchen with a financial donation are making a tremendous statement that says, “I believe in my work.”
Of the 150 employees at DCCK, 60 are graduates who work full-time and earn living wages with quality benefits. Each and every day, we witness the power of food as a tool to change lives and build community. Our work at DC Central Kitchen is more than a job, our employees believe in it.
DCCK Procurement and Sustainability Manager, Amy Bachman says: “I am participating in the 10 for 10 campaign again this year because I believe in the work of DC Central Kitchen. I have seen the successes of our Culinary Job Training program through my colleagues I work with every day. I believe it’s important to support the work of my organization through my personal investment as well as through my training for the race. It’s my way of putting my money where my mouth is when I talk about all the great work the Kitchen does and that I truly see value in the investment.”
Matt Schnarr, expansion and partnerships manager for DCCK’s national sister nonprofit, The Campus Kitchens Project, adds: “It might seem a bit strange to ask employees to give back to the organization where they work, but for me, campaigns like this show the commitment of our staff to the overall mission of the Kitchen. There is something very powerful about coming together as a family to support the heart of the Kitchen – the Culinary Job Training program. For me, it is about more than just raising money. I give because I believe in what we are doing and want to support our work in any way I can.”
So far, our colleagues have raised $6,300, but there’s still time to help! Visit the fundraising page to learn more about how you can contribute!
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.
“I never thought I would be in this position,” says Tarina Munlyn.
Five years ago, Tarina struggled with addiction and lived in the DC General homeless shelter. Today, she is in a vastly better position.
Tarina, a Culinary Job Training program graduate and a DC Central Kitchen staff member says, “I never thought I’d have a job, and get to give back to the community, and get to work with volunteers from all over the country every day.”
Tarina’s story is just one of many we could share to illustrate the impact our supporters like you make when they give to DC Central Kitchen’s work. It’s the story of one human life transformed through our innovative programs that combat hunger and create opportunity:
Tarina grew up in what she describes as “a drug-infested neighborhood” in Northeast DC. She began using drugs as a young woman, and eventually found herself at rock bottom, homeless, and struggling with her addiction.
After completing a drug rehabilitation program, Tarina met a DC Central Kitchen driver delivering meals to her shelter. The driver told her if she wanted to make a change, she should come to the Kitchen. Tarina enrolled in our Culinary Job Training program, graduated in 2010, and has had a steady living-wage job with full health benefits here at DCCK for four years.
Now, Tarina works in our Main Kitchen leading volunteers in the remarkable daily process of turning 3,000 pounds of recovered food into balanced meals. At the end of the day, Tarina goes home to her own apartment.
Tarina’s story is just one example of what supporters like you can make possible. Envision her story on the annual scale of the 100 men and women we train, the 1.8 million meals we serve, and the 750,000 pounds of food we save from going in the trash and then envision the impact you can make when you invest in DC Central Kitchen.
Your donation to DC Central Kitchen is an investment in our work to combat hunger and create opportunity.
As a DC Central Kitchen supporter, you are part of an incredible process that distributes balanced meals around the city while empowering men and women to overcome obstacles like homelessness, addiction, incarceration, and chronic unemployment in our kitchen.
Thanks for investing in our work this holiday season!
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.”