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.”



Breaking the rules for Spring Break at DCCK

, March 20th, 2015

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For most college students, Spring Break means more than traveling to tropical destinations. We see this firsthand at DC Central Kitchen during the months of March and April when we welcome floods of eager young people looking to make a difference.

For years we’ve welcomed to our kitchen hundreds of young people from across the globe that choose to spend their Spring Breaks partaking in service projects, learning about different people and places, and being active citizens in their community.

So far, 2015 has been no exception. In the last two weeks alone we have hosted approximately 250 student volunteers who will work alongside our staff, mostly graduates of our Culinary Job Training program, to help process more than 3,000 pounds of healthy produce during their three-hour shift slicing and dicing.  We’re already scheduled to host another 175 more for the remainder of March and April!

Thanks to these bright young people who are visiting DC for any number of reasons during their Alternative Spring Break, we’ll continue to prepare and distribute 5,000 meals a day to nearby homeless shelters, afterschool programs and rehabilitation clinics.

To name just a few of our counterparts in service, by the end of April we’ll have enjoyed hosting student volunteers from colleges and universities including William and Mary, Penn State, Ithaca College, Wake Forest University, Belmont University, Pepperdine University, Kent State, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgetown University, American University, and George Washington University.

Thanks to everyone who has given their time in service to DC Central Kitchen and to bettering the lives of our neighbors here in DC. If you enjoyed your experience and it was your first touch point to the issues of food waste and food insecurity, we’d encourage you to look into whether your school has a Campus Kitchen.

The Campus Kitchens Project is our national sister organization that empowers student volunteers to fight hunger in their community. At each of the 43 Campus Kitchens nationwide, students lead efforts to combat food waste and hunger by collecting surplus food from on-campus dining halls, community gardens, restaurants, and grocery stores and transforming it into healthy meals. In the last academic year, Campus Kitchens across the country rescued more than 823,549 pounds of food and served 293,963 meals to 12,006 clients.

Click here to learn more about starting your own Campus Kitchen or about how to volunteer with DCCK.



What cold weather means at DCCK

, January 15th, 2015

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Cold weather brings changes to DC Central Kitchen’s daily operations. The city’s homeless shelters we serve are typically closed during the day, but when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, they stay open so clients aren’t forced to go out into freezing temperatures.

DC Central Kitchen’s meal distribution program increases its production during what’s known as “hypothermia season” to support the greater demand for meals. Homeless shelters will add more beds temporarily to support additional clients seeking shelter, and some sites will open on an emergency basis as well.

As members of the DC community, we can all play a role in protecting the homeless from extreme weather injury. Call the Shelter Hotline when you see a person who is homeless and may be impacted by extreme temperatures. The Shelter Hotline is operated by the United Planning Organization (UPO). You can reach the hotline by calling (202) 399-7093, or toll-free 1 (800) 535-7252.



Barbeque Fare Spices Things Up for DCCK

, August 27th, 2014

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At DC Central Kitchen, we always want the meals we provide to our partners to be nutritious, delicious and dignified. Barbeque food is something that our clients have requested before, but because our meals are created largely with recycled food, we haven’t been able to easily accommodate this simple summer request.

So, when our friends at the Liaison Capitol Hill and Art & Soul asked if they could donate 3000 hot dogs and hamburgers and come cook them, we jumped at the chance to provide meals that were not only going to be tasty and fun, but also met a preexisting request.

A linchpin to this culinary treat was Chef Derrick Wood, owner of Dyvine BBQ in Motion, who donated his impressive mobile grill and smoker for the day to help us create the authentic barbeque flavor. And, thanks to Art & Soul Executive Chef, Doug Alexander, Sous Chef Leo Ferrerio,and the volunteers from Liaison and Art & Soul, we prepped and barbequed 3000 hot dogs and hamburgers that were served with traditional favorites – baked beans, and coleslaw – to our partner agencies for dinner.

Big thanks to the chefs and our volunteers for sharing the food, your time, and your culinary talents that allowed us to provide an extra special summer meal for those in need.

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Connecting 15,000 Volunteers to Our Mission

, July 16th, 2014

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In late spring, DC Central Kitchen Volunteer Manager Pertula George-Redd introduced a new, interactive volunteer orientation. With 15,000 volunteers working at the Kitchen each year, the orientation is a powerful way to share why our mission and our work is so important.

“A lot of volunteers don’t know that much about hunger in DC or how DC Central Kitchen’s programs are helping. I think volunteers want to learn more, and find out where and how they can help. That’s why it’s so important to really discuss what their work in the kitchen means.” -Pertula George-Redd, Volunteer Manager

There are two orientation activities, each designed to stimulate a meaningful discussion about hunger and poverty in DC. In one activity, volunteers read a card with a statement like, “stand up if you had breakfast this morning,” and on the opposite side of the card is a statistic about food insecurity. In the other activity, volunteers are asked to consider what expenses they would cut based on a specific low-income family scenario and budget.

One volunteer wrote in a follow-up survey, “I really enjoyed the orientation, and the cards helped [me] gain a better appreciation of the very real issues facing those less fortunate in our community.” Both activities are simple ways to get volunteers to learn about and better relate to the challenges low income Americans face trying to make ends meet. The orientation activities provide a much needed a desired context for the work each volunteer does in the kitchen.

A simple change like this can have a tremendous impact on the community when volunteers leave the kitchen better informed about the very real issues of hunger and poverty, and also filled with the efficacy to take action to help strengthen our community.

Check out our new volunteer orientation yourself by signing yourself (or a group of friends or co-workers) up for a volunteer shift: www.dccentralkitchen.org/volunteer.



Volunteer Profile: Suga Chef Brings Style, Sweets to DCCK

, July 11th, 2014
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Chef Padua Player, aka Suga Chef, poses with the students of the first Central Union Mission CJT class and the orange soufflé he helped them make.

The students of the first Culinary Job Training class at Central Union Mission yesterday got their first taste of cooking sweets this week thanks to Chef Padua Playa, aka Suga Chef, who taught the students how to make a cold orange soufflé.

Chef Padua won the High Stakes Cakes competition at our 10th annual Capital Food Fight in November, but his history with DC Central Kitchen goes beyond that. He first became acquainted with the Kitchen when his cousin graduated from the Culinary Job Training Program seven years ago. Chef Padua has been coming back ever since. “Coming to the Kitchen gives me some grounding. It’s nice to give back to people who actually appreciate it, and it’s rewarding too.”

The orange soufflé lesson was a perfect complement to the class’s emphasis on eggs this week in their culinary instruction. Chef Padua chose the dessert because it is cool, refreshing, and light, perfect for D.C.’s hot summers. “This was a fascinating cooking experience. I never thought you could use eggs in so many different ways. I never would have expected a soufflé,” said student Derrick Howard.

For some of the students, this wasn’t just the first time they whipped up sweets in the culinary program; it was the first time they created a sweet – ever. “I love when guest chefs come because we learn something so new. Especially me. I’m new to cooking so it’s a wonderful opportunity,” said student Kelvin Johnston.

Chef Padua is one of the 15,000 annual volunteers who lend their time and talents to DCCK, and you don’t need to be an award winning chef like him to make a big difference. We have a critical need for emergency volunteers who can help on short notice when volunteer groups cancel. Join our list of emergency volunteers today.