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.
Instagram Pinterist Facebook Twitter

Latest Updates

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Building Culinary Confidence

, January 30th, 2013

building culinary confidence
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.

A kitchen isn’t an easy place to work. It’s hot, loud, and stressful. Everyone is under intense pressure, and on top of that, they’re all holding knives. DC Central Kitchen takes men and women who have been homeless, incarcerated, and addicted to drugs and throws them into this steaming pressure cooker. This might all sound crazy to you — it certainly did to me when I landed a job here out of culinary school 15 years ago. But in this crowded, noisy basement kitchen, people who are all too familiar with failure find ways to succeed. Much of this success comes from how we build culinary confidence in these unsure students.

To enroll in our Culinary Job Training program, we ask each interested trainee to spend five days volunteering in our main kitchen, helping to prepare the 5,000 meals we deliver to 100 other homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other nonprofits across Washington, D.C. We toss them right into our hectic operation, where they work alongside other community volunteers — who range from church groups to convicts doing court-ordered service — and our staff in high-intensity production. This introduction is meant to be a two-way street. We see if these potential students can focus, take direction, and stay on task for a six-hour shift. They find out if they have an interest in a culinary career.

If a student is still on board after a week, they can apply to our program, offered four times each year for 14 weeks. From there, we start with the basics — fruits, vegetables, and herbs — before moving on to meats, poultry, pasta, and legumes. In each unit, we hammer home the main and most essential part of our culinary training, knife skills. Trainees practice these skills while helping our staff and our volunteers prepare DCCK’s many meals each day. Instead of relying on the meals we serve, our students start feeding others instead.

We know not everything they do will be perfect, especially in the early days of each course. Some cuts will be messy, some dishes overcooked. I like to tell our students that, generally speaking, they can’t really screw up. Mistakes are good things, because they allows our instructors to show trainees how to fix that mistake the next time.

There’s one type of mistake we can’t stand for, though. From day one, we infuse the culinary arts side of our program with a focus on food safety. Our kitchen staff likes to say “we answer to a higher authority,” as our meals are eaten by thousands of at-risk people each day with compromised immune systems and other serious health issues. In all our years of operation, we have never had an instance of food-borne illness, and the intense training we provide to our culinary students is a big reason why. For students who have always been made to feel like part of “the problem” — whether that problem is poverty, or drug abuse, or crime — they’re eager to be part of a solution, to give something back to a community they have often taken far too much from. And the high expectations help set a clear, measurable standard for them to judge their work by.

In 2012, we built two new classrooms that are pushing our skills training to higher levels. In our Culinary Training Kitchen, we installed modern kitchen equipment and practice stations suited to small group work and individual instruction. Student-teacher ratios matter in every educational setting, whether you’re teaching kids or ex-cons. Thanks to this new space, our trainees are better prepared for the tools and techniques they will need to understand during their two-week-long professional internships across D.C. and on the first days of their new jobs. Meanwhile, our new computer lab helps our students seek out those employment opportunities and gives us space to provide special, quiet study sessions for the food handlers’ licensing exam we administer to each student at the end of the program. It isn’t easy to prepare for a test in a chaotic halfway house, and this new space offers a safe, productive learning environment where our staff can provide special one-on-one coaching.

By the time our students graduate from our program, they’re pretty good with their hands. After all, since the recession of 2008, 90 percent of our 370 graduates have found full-time work. But the best tool they can use — in the kitchen, at the workplace, or in their own lives — is their head. Our version of culinary training is intense, but it’s the other half of what we do, which we call self-empowerment, that helps people take hold of their futures. In the kitchen, we show students they can succeed. In those tough self-empowerment sessions, we challenge them to face their failures.

How We’re Teaching Kids Through Cooking Classes

, January 29th, 2013


Make room in that kitchen, mom and dad. Pre-Kindergarten students at Walker Jones Education Campus are learning that you’re never too young to help cook a healthy meal. On Tuesday mornings, three and four year-old students will participate in hands-on cooking lessons in the Walker Jones Food Lab.

Starting in January 2013, DC Central Kitchen’s chefs Ed Kwitowski and Christina Brown along with Katie Nash, R.D., will teach weekly lessons to WJA students simple cooking and baking techniques. The team will use kid-friendly recipes featuring fresh fruits and vegetables in weekly lessons.  In early January, students in the first class rolled up their sleeves and learned to make “Smashed Bean Burritos,” mashing beans and salsa in Ziploc bags to fill and bake burritos.

The lessons also give WJA an opportunity to extend its Food Lab, a classroom dedicated to teaching the basics of cooking and nutrition, to the younger students. The Food Lab incorporates the school’s urban farm into its curriculum to educate children about their food sources. Ultimately, DC Central Kitchen and Walker Jones are aiming to encourage students to try new foods and empower them to cook healthy meals in their kitchens at home.

The Power of Tough Love

, January 28th, 2013

The Power of Tough LoveThis 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.

Twenty-five years ago, D.C. Central Kitchen started with the idea that just handing out food would never end hunger. Hunger is a symptom of a bigger problem: poverty. That’s why we started training the men and women who depended on soup kitchens and food pantries in the culinary arts, so they could get out of the soup line and onto the right track.

Over the years, we learned that being out of work was itself usually a symptom of other, more destructive problems. Before we can help people find decent jobs, we use a ‘tough love’ approach to change the way they see the world and see themselves. Depending on the day, sometimes we have to lean more to the ‘tough’ side of things than the loving one.

We know that the people who make their way down the alley and into the basement of this massive homeless shelter aren’t here because their lives have been hunky dory. If you’re here, something is seriously wrong. Our students, in short, are broken. When they first enroll, they’re focused on survival. Whether they’re coming from a shelter, the streets, or prison, they’ve developed ways of getting by that, in some sense, work — after all, they’re still breathing.

They aren’t thinking straight, though. They know how to lie, how to look ‘hard,’ how to hide weakness and never admit failure. But they don’t know how to succeed or how to grow. The mentalities that help someone survive when they’re locked up, hooked on drugs, or living under a bridge won’t work in the workplace, so we can’t let them persist here in our kitchen.

Part of getting them to let go of those old mentalities means showing our students a lot of love. Our staff understands where these trainees our coming from. Our training team is stacked with recovering addicts, our kitchen staffed by dozens of graduates of our program who have changed their lives. Those graduates are now smiling examples of how our model can work and mentors to each incoming class. When we can, we vigorously support our students and look for creative ways to help them overcome the serious challenges they’re up against.

But don’t think that just because we’re loving, we’re naïve. You can’t play a player. Too many of us at DCCK, including me, have spent too many years lying, looking hard, hiding weakness, and denying failure to not pick up on the self-destructive tendencies of our students. We set high expectations, but design strategies that help our students actually achieve them and see their own progress along the way.

Lots of job training programs that help low-income folks get a fresh start say they offer ‘life skills.’ Our students have plenty of skills that have kept them alive. What they don’t have are the tools to live better. Each day, our students enter a private classroom for a 90-minute ‘Self-Empowerment Session,’ led by an experienced facilitator. We take on tough topics from setting goals and managing expectations to anger management and coping with disappointment. These may sound like simple skills, but they’re ones that lots of functioning, employed people take for granted. Our trainees need to discover them for the first time before they ever land their first paycheck.

I’ve seen hundreds of trainees demonstrate incredible changes in our crowded basement kitchen. I want to be clear, though. We fix meals here, not people. D.C. Central Kitchen offers a supportive environment, committed coaches, intense instruction, and a strong network of employers who know and respect our program. With those supports and a lot of tough love, even the hardest cases can become contributing, gainfully employed citizens. The deciding factor lies within each student. Are they tough enough to take our teaching? Can they love themselves enough to let themselves succeed?

Donor Stories: Liam and Samantha Carey, ages 8 and 6

, January 23rd, 2013

Liam and Samantha Carey, ages 8 and 6, are aspiring chefs. When they were challenged by a family friend to make a difference in their community, the brother and sister duo turned their passion for cooking into a fundraiser for DC Central Kitchen. They spent eight months developing a cookbook with some of their favorite recipes including “Egg in a Hole” and “Grandma’s ‘Oh I Didn’t Know You Were Dropping By’ Pasta.” In December, their cookbook was finally finished and they sold it to family, friends and classmates.

Earlier this month Liam, Samantha, their mom Kate, and a group of their classmates came to visit DC Central Kitchen to share their cookbook and present the $877.65 that they raised. Liam explained why they chose to dedicate their cookbook to DC Central Kitchen, saying, “They give kids food. If they don’t have breakfast at home, then they get a good lunch at school.” Samantha added, “I want to help people who don’t have a house.”

Shortening the Line By the Way We Feed It

, January 22nd, 2013


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.

Maybe you’ve heard of DC Central Kitchen. You might know that we turn leftover food into 5,000 meals each and every day for Washington, DC’s homeless shelters, halfway houses, and nonprofits, saving them millions of dollars a year that they can instead spend on their clients and mission. Feeding folks who are hungry is important work, and we’re proud to do it.

But we are not a ‘feeding organization.’ We aren’t happy to serve more meals, year after year. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many hot meals or dry goods we dish out, America’s community kitchens and food banks will never feed our way out of hunger.

That’s why we try to shorten this city’s line of hungry people by the way that we feed it.

More than anything else, we are an empowerment organization. Filling stomachs is fine, but we’re far more interested in feeding minds. We recruit the struggling men and women who eat our meals each day at DC’s shelters, halfway houses, and treatment programs to enroll in our Culinary Job Training program.

Over the course of fourteen weeks, these ‘tough cases’ learn to embrace hard work, contribute to their community, and believe in themselves. Most are second or third generation felons, or the latest in a family line of addicts. When they show up in our noisy kitchen, located a few blocks from the US Capitol in the basement of America’s largest homeless shelter, they are desperate for a second (or third, or fourth) chance. We seize on that opportunity, working them hard for the duration of our program. Half of the time they are with us is spent in the kitchen, learning skills and refining techniques that will help them get a job in the hospitality industry.

For people with long histories of anti-social behavior, ‘hospitality’ may not seem like a very good fit. That’s why the other half of our program, which we call ‘self-empowerment,’ has nothing to do with cooking, but giving them the courage and coping mechanisms they need to keep that job and change their lives forever.

Skeptical? I was, at first. But over the years, we’ve trained nearly 1,100 men and women other people had long since written off as hopeless causes. Since the Great Recession of 2008, 90% of our 370 graduates have found full-time work, and more than 80% have lasted in those positions for more than six months. And for the many ex-offenders we train, our self-empowerment curriculum is a vital tool for staying out of prison. Nationwide, two-thirds of our returning citizens re-offend within three years. Completing our program reduces their likelihood of recidivism by more than 96%.

Our students aren’t the only people changed in our kitchen. Every year, more than 14,000 people from across the country and around the world visit us as volunteers. Most assume they will be helping out at a run-of-the-mill soup kitchen. Once they arrive, however, they find themselves working side-by-side with our culinary trainees and our staff — nearly 70 of whom are graduates of our Culinary Job Training Program — to slice, dice, chop and roll out those 5,000 meals.

These well-meaning do-gooders figured they would show up, feed a homeless person or ex-con, and leave feeling better about themselves. Instead, they’re taking orders and learning lessons from those very types of people (who are holding knives, by the way), and leaving with a new understanding of what poverty, hunger, and unemployment mean on both a human level and a systemic one. When they walk out of our kitchen, they’re left asking “Why don’t we have one of these in our city?” Or saying, “I guess people can change if given the right mix of opportunity, support, and high expectations.”

All this seems pretty simple, and in many ways it is. We use the power of food not just to feed the men and women standing in those lines, but to nourish their minds and spirits so they can help us shorten those lines and feed them no more.

CoBank Awards DC Central Kitchen $1 Million

, January 16th, 2013


In an effort to support regional family farms and increase local purchasing power, CoBank, a Colorado-based cooperative bank and a member of the Farm Credit System, has awarded $1 million dollars to DC Central Kitchen.

Over the last two decades DC Central Kitchen has prepared more than 25 million meals for low-income and at-risk community members in DC. CoBank says, “DC Central Kitchen will utilize the $1 million grant to increase its capacity to transport, prepare, store and distribute locally grown foods throughout Washington D.C., to schools, homeless shelters, rehabilitation clinics and neighborhood corner stores.”

DC Central Kitchen sources much of its fresh, local produce from a farmer-owned auction facility in Dayton, Virginia, including tomatoes, peppers, corn, onions, squash and potatoes. In 2011, CoBank provided DC Central Kitchen with a grant to purchase a refrigerated truck and delivery van to transport produce to its food production hubs and distribution sites across Washington, DC. DC Central Kitchen staff incorporates locally-grown Virginia farm products into some 10,000 meals served each day at schools and partner agencies throughout the Washington metro area.

A key part of DC Central Kitchen’s work is to provide culinary job training for unemployed, homeless and other underprivileged adults in order to provide them with a path to a career in the food service industry.

While announcing this grant, Robert B. Engel, president and chief executive officer of CoBank, said, “DC Central Kitchen’s unique and creative business model is able to connect food supplied by local farmers in rural areas with demand in the inner city. As a mission-based lender, we’re delighted to be making an investment that will bring the benefit of local foods to even more of the thousands of people that DC Central Kitchen serves each year.”

Michael Curtin Jr., DC Central Kitchen Chief Executive Officer said, “We are focused on increasing the nutritional value of our meals in addition to overall volume. Local produce helps us to significantly enhance the quality of our product, and we’re grateful for the help that CoBank is providing us to achieve that goal.”

Click  here for more information on CoBank.