Updates for Staff Profiles
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.”
David Hill, the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, believes that many students who come to DCCK already have all the skills they need. Most students have been through hard times and developed important life skills and resourceful approaches to getting by as a result.
Our students don’t realize how they can bring those skills into the Kitchen and into the workplace to become even more successful. That’s what we try to do as a team.
Hill joined the DC Central Kitchen team last year as our first social worker and has been busy providing students with extra support since then. As a LCSW, he offers a clinical perspective to the Kitchen and therefore has a different lens with which to see any potential problems students may have. He is trained to assess and diagnose mental illness; whereas before, the program would send students elsewhere for the therapy they needed, Hill can work with students directly in the Kitchen – transforming the program into more of a one-stop shop. This is David’s first job working as the only LCSW on a staff, but that challenge excites him.
I’m the person they can come to talk to if they have issues or troubles and they would get help. No one would ever have to know.
Confidentiality is of upmost importance to Hill, and because of Hill’s clinical background, he can help students with the core issues they struggle with, including those related to mental health. Ultimately, having David on staff means we can keep students more engaged in their studies so they can graduate and find jobs – and so they don’t have to worry about juggling an off-site provider of these services.
Coming to DCCK and helping CJT realize its mission better has been a wonderful career change for Hill, he adds. “To quote DCCK’s long-time empowerment coach Ron Swanson, we work with people who need second, third, fourth, or fifth chances. That excites me. Every person needs that.”
Taking a break from his job as a cook at DC Central Kitchen, 54-year-old Marvin Bushrod considers his circumstances. “I have a job, a 401(k) plan, I just got a used car. I’m living the dream,” he says, sounding deeply grateful and a little stunned at his good fortune. “If it weren’t for DC Central Kitchen, I don’t know where I’d be.”
His dream has been a long time coming: On February 15, 1997, Marvin decided it was time to change; it was his 37th birthday, and he was almost halfway through a 30-year prison sentence.
Marvin Bushrod grew up in Washington, DC. He went to Meyer Elementary School, then Lincoln Jr. High in northwest DC. But he had what he describes as a troubled youth, and after seventh grade he left school barely able to read or write. Frank and self-possessed, Marvin offers little elaboration on his early years, except to add bluntly that he was an addict “with no morals, no principles” by the time he was sent to prison in December 1983.
He spent the first half of his sentence getting high and fighting, stuck in the same destructive cycle he’d lived in outside of prison. But on that day in February, he arrived at a decision that he’d been approaching for several years.
I was tired of the lifestyle, going through the negativity. I got to a point where I was just fed up.
He decided to stop getting high and do “only positive things.” He stopped fighting with other inmates, took classes and earned his GED, and spent a lot of time reading. And he got a job in the prison kitchen.
He turned his focus to helping others, counseling inmates to help them deal with the challenges of life in prison and volunteering to talk to school groups. He spent 16 years establishing new patterns of behavior and shifting the direction of his life.
In 2013 he approached the parole board, and was released from prison in Atwater, Calif., where he had served his sentence. On his release, he was given a bus ticket and instructions to report to a halfway house in Washington, DC. Out of prison for the first time in 30 years, he found his way to the bus station and began the journey across the country. Four days later, he was home.
Strange new world
When he got to DC, he found a world that was both familiar and alien. When he left in the early 1980s, the metro system was still new and payphones were ubiquitous. Now Marvin had to learn how to use the unfamiliar public transportation system and the payphones were all gone.
He noticed that electronics like cell phones and computers are everywhere now. Just walking down the street could be a bizarre experience: One day Marvin was on his way from the halfway house to a health center when he noticed a man walking alone, talking loudly to himself. A little farther on, he saw a young woman, also talking loudly, seemingly to no one. “I saw some crazy people out there today,” Marvin told the counselor when he returned to the house. Those folks weren’t crazy he was told; they were talking on their phones—with headsets.
Marvin still has some catching up to do. “I have to learn how to use a computer and I’ve barely figured out how to use my phone.”
While in the halfway house, he enrolled in Project Empowerment, a DC government training program to help former inmates and others facing serious challenges find jobs. It was there that he learned about DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Training Program.
A second chance
In a job market that is already challenging, ex-offenders face serious barriers to getting hired. Surveys show employers are reluctant to hire people with criminal backgrounds. At the same time, the link between unemployment among ex-offenders and recidivism is clear. In DC, nearly half of those released from prison are unemployed, according to the Council for Court Excellence. Without a job and the independence and self-esteem employment provides, their chances of ending up back in prison are a lot higher, and the costs—to themselves, their families, communities, and the city—pile up.
DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Training Program interrupts this negative cycle by offering a second chance to those who really want one. Applicants must meet certain criteria to be enrolled: They must be unemployed or underemployed, yet they need to have stable housing and a high school diploma or GED; they must be drug-free for at least 120 days and have the physical ability and stamina to work in a busy kitchen setting.
And they must have an interest in food service as a career. With significant kitchen experience already under his belt, Marvin applied to the 14-week program, which provides culinary arts training, as well as life skills training, and job placement assistance.
The program’s goal is “to prepare unemployed, underemployed, previously incarcerated, and homeless adults for careers in food service industry.” Students learn how to cook and graduate with a food-hander’s license. They also gain job-search skills—using a computer, writing a resume, conducting an interview—and habits of self-discipline they need to hold onto their jobs and take control of their lives.
The hardest part: self-empowerment
The hardest part of the program was getting past Ron, the self-empowerment instructor. Every morning Ron would poke at me. I was stubborn. But by the fourth week, he got me to see what I needed to do. I hated Ron at first, but now we’re the best of friends.
Marvin says the self-empowerment training is like having a mirror held up to your face, forcing you to recognize your faults and weaknesses and take the steps to address them. Marianne Ali, the director of the Culinary Training Program, says most of the students have struggled with substance abuse, criminal backgrounds, homelessness, and other problems. The self-empowerment component helps them reflect on their past patterns of behavior and figure out what needs to change.
“It establishes a foundation not to go back to past behaviors, and helps them with self-efficacy. Many of them have a deep-rooted belief that they can’t succeed. Our work is about 20 percent culinary training and 80 percent nurturing a belief in themselves and reaffirming their sense of self-worth,” says Marianne.
During his years in prison, Marvin had already done a lot of work toward establishing new patterns. “It was clear as day that he was ready to do whatever was necessary,” says Marianne. Still, he lost focus at one point, and missed a couple days of training. When that happened, Marianne sat down and talked with him. When he was young and selling drugs on the street, did he ever take a day off, she asked? No, he hadn’t. She told him, that’s because nothing stopped, and he had to be out there every day. “You know you have the capability,” she said. “Now you have to apply that same energy and ingenuity to a legal profession.”
“That was a real eye-opener,” said Marvin. “I never missed another day.”
The Ron Swanson Award
When the training program came to a close, the students voted for their classmates to receive special awards—Most Valued Player Award, Most Improved Award, and Sunshine Award.
The recipient of one more award, the Ron Swanson Life Skills Award, goes to a student who has embraced the process of self-empowerment and taken the steps necessary to build a new life. Ron nominated Marvin to receive this award, and the program’s team agreed. Marvin says, “He could see I wanted to punch him sometimes, but I controlled myself. That’s why he selected me—because I showed self-control.”
But Marianne says Marvin’s determination to succeed was evident when he arrived at DC Central Kitchen. “Maybe it was easier for Marvin because he came with that motivation,” says Marianne.
“An amazing place”
The Culinary Training Program has helped around 90 percent of its graduates find jobs. In 2013, 86 percent of the program’s graduates kept their jobs for at least six months. Furthermore, the jobs they got offered an average starting wage of almost $10.50 per hour, more than $2 above the District’s minimum wage.
Marvin was hired by DC Central Kitchen to work as a cook. He is responsible for salads, but he says everyone helps out in all parts of the kitchen. It’s like working in the prison kitchen, in that both are big institutions preparing meals for thousands of people every day. But unlike prison, he says, at DC Central Kitchen the food is prepared with love.
If it weren’t for DC Central Kitchen, where would I be? Who would give a guy with my background, 54 years old, a job? There are people out there who have been looking for years for work, people with no criminal background, who can’t find a job.
He wonders where he and others would be without the Culinary Training Program, how many people would be back in jail or on drugs. In his class, 67 percent of the graduates were previously incarcerated. But they turned their lives around, and DC Central Kitchen gave them a second chance. The program follows up on graduates in the year following graduation, and offers services to help with housing, employment, or other issues.
“We definitely wouldn’t be as successful as we are. It’s like a godsend, the program saves so many lives.”
He hopes he’ll stay at DC Central Kitchen, maybe becoming production manager at some point.
“At DCCK you get to meet a lot of people. You meet volunteers from all over, they tell you their stories and you tell yours, and nobody judges. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing place.”
This story was written by Kristin Witting, a volunteer for DCCK.
Click here learn more about DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program.
DC Central Kitchen believes that every student in our Culinary Job Training Program has the potential to change their lives and find full-time employment in the culinary industry. Ashley Minton, DCCK’s Workforce Development and Graduate Support Coordinator, greatly prizes the fact that the Kitchen provides a non-judgmental environment for students to turn their lives around.
Ashley just graduated college last year and this is her first job out of college. Previously, she helped lead the Campus Kitchen at the University of Maryland – Eastern Shore, so the mission of DC Central Kitchen was very familiar and her position was a natural fit. She put herself through college by working full-time, so she is accustomed to having to work hard to realize her success. Because of this, she can relate to the students she supports through her work.
Ashley’s job is to continue supporting CJT graduates long after they leave the kitchen. “We’re always here for our alums. Sometimes, I get calls from graduates from ten years ago, and I provide them the same support I would provide a student who just graduated, “ she explains.
Ashley’s job description includes helping graduates learn how to write resumes and cover letters, increasing their professionalism, providing networking experiences, and providing trainings in workplace ethics.
Above all, Ashley imparts confidence to CJT participants: “I really stress that we have the connections and resources to help students get internships and jobs, and I do everything I can, but at the end of the day, they have to go out and interview for the jobs.”
Ashley has full faith in every student’s ability to get those jobs. In fact, every student from the past two classes were employed by the time of graduation. She expanded the internship component of the program to a month, which was a major contributor to their success. “Each day I learn something new at my job. I help the students grow, but I grow every day myself,” she says with a smile.
As most parents can attest, getting kids to eat their meals is a challenge, especially with unfamiliar foods. DC Central Kitchen faces this challenge every day in the lunches we prepare for students at ten DC area schools. These healthy and nutritious lunches have been a resounding success, with more and more student participation in the lunch program every year.
Much of the success of our Healthy School Food program can be attributed to the talented staff that bring innovative ideas to the Kitchen.
Katie Nash is a program manager and registered dietician at DC Central Kitchen’s Nutrition Lab. Nash strikes a balance between what kids will eat and what federal mandates require for nutritional content, which includes everything from calorie count to vitamin and mineral percentages. She also has to take into consideration different age groups and students who may have specific dietary needs or food allergies to dairy or gluten. This is not an easy task.
Nash has found through studies with American University that kids respond well to sampling. They’ll try most anything, so long as it comes in a cute, white paper cup.
“Sometimes that’s the only way kids will eat new foods, but it gets them accustomed to new tastes, and more open to trying new foods when they show up on the school lunch menu,” Nash explained.
Every Friday, Nash prepares three different recipes of that day’s star ingredient in a series called Fresh Features Friday. For example, she prepared brussels sprouts for FFF in an Asian slaw, roasted and with a cider glaze. Other recent tastings include asparagus, broccoli , and chickpeas.
Nash also involves students in food demonstrations and lessons, which gets kids excited about their meals. Recently, she showed students the different parts of root vegetables and how to make vegetable pizzas.
For inspiration on how to prepare in season produce in innovative ways, follow DC Central Kitchen on Pinterest.
She understands the challenges of the people she’s worked with in her sixteen years at DC Central Kitchen, and she strives to address their holistic needs in achieving both their professional success and personal recovery.
After getting clean, she enrolled at the L’Academie de Cuisine. While at school, she heard about DCCK and came to work for Fresh Start Catering, our first social enterprise. Marianne eventually moved onto leading the Culinary Job Training program. Over the years, she took on revamping the program. She created more structured classes and incorporated Heritage Days and increased the number of guest chefs and internship sites.
Ali also helped improve our student retention rate in the program by increasing the amount of time that a student needed to the clean and requiring stable housing. Those in recovery also had to go to meetings and get consistent case management. These changes weren’t intended to turn anyone away. Rather, they ensure the success of those in need who do enroll in the program. Ali’s efforts were successful, as the retention rate quickly rose from 50% to 80%.
Over the past year, Marianne has also played a crucial role in improving First Helping, our street outreach program. She has worked to expand the program beyond providing basic needs. Now First Helping provides job placement assistance and empowerment workshops to chronically homeless clients. Last year, five First Helping clients joined the Culinary Job Training program. She’d like to see students have most of their needs met at DC Central Kitchen, including their recovery needs, as going elsewhere for other components of their recovery is taxing for students.
It sounds like Marianne is as busy as ever! While she’s the first to admit that her never ending amount of work can take an occasional toll, she also says emphatically, “I could do this for a thousand more years.”