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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Posts by Michael F. Curtin, Jr.

Missing The Point: Another Misguided Take on Food Deserts

, February 19th, 2014
Apples in a bag, an example of one of the convenient and healthy snacks  sold by our Healthy Corner stores.

Apples in a bag: an example of one of the convenient and healthy snacks sold by our Healthy Corner Stores.

Key Points:

Of the tens of thousands of people who are invested in promoting the consumption of healthier food in economically marginalized and underserved communities throughout our country, very few suggest that simply opening a new grocery store or stocking a few extra produce items will spark sudden reductions in obesity or other chronic diseases.  However, a study in the February issue of The Journal of Health Affairs (highlighted in a recent Washington Post article) is yet another attempt to set that unrealistic standard. A problem that has taken root over several generations won’t be solved quickly or simply—but that doesn’t mean we’re not making real progress in this fight.

Over the past few years at DC Central Kitchen, we have been on the front lines of the District’s food deserts, undertaking an innovative approach that blends extensive research, community outreach, and direct action. Most importantly, it’s working.

The authors of the study note that “the intervention moderately improved residents’ perceptions of food accessibility. However, it did not lead to changes in reported fruit and vegetable intake or body mass index” over the six month period of the study.  With over one third of American adults and close to 20% of our children classified as obese, it would be foolish to think that opening new grocery stores would by themselves reduce or eliminate obesity so quickly. Moreover, making food ‘accessible’ involves more than improving its physical proximity to at-risk groups—increasing its affordability is far more important. The researcher’s narrow approach to assessing the problem and measuring their results predetermined the results of their study from the start.

The authors go on to say, however, that though grocery stores alone seemed to have no impact, “complementary policy changes and interventions may be needed to help consumers bridge the gap between perception and action.” That gap is where research should be taking place—and that’s right where DCCK is focusing its efforts.

Our Healthy Corners program has empowered 33 corner stores in low-income neighborhoods to stock and sell healthy food. We give business store owners all the tools and trainings and they need to make healthy food appealing to customers, and then work hard to get their customers excited about these tasty, nutritious goods. And we’re overcoming one of the most significant hurdles facing small retailers in food deserts by actually delivering healthy products to them at fair prices each week.

No product sells itself. There’s a reason America’s most popular brands spend millions of dollars to ‘educate’ their audience during sporting events as to which beer is most ‘refreshing’ and which neon-flavored chip has the most ‘intense’ flavor. Why should healthy foods be expected to fare better without that type of consumer engagement?

At DC Central Kitchen, we’re continually exploring ways to improve affordable access to healthy food in economically challenged areas, while working within those communities to educate and engage consumers. We’re not paternalistically telling people what to eat. We’re listening to their preferences and concerns, and using that critical feedback to decide what foods to deliver and how to help our corner store customers become more informed, invested consumers.

If you believe markets are always right, then the lack of healthy options in these neighborhoods reflects a fundamental—and seemingly immovable—lack of demand for them. But that argument denies the basic business reality that our current food distribution system is not built to serve these communities, regardless of the evident demand for better food that our Healthy Corners program has found and cultivated. In our food deserts, the free market is broken. We’re trying to fix it so we can help businesses grow in ways that will shrink our city’s rates of obesity.

Healthy Corners’ results have been remarkable. With few exceptions, the units sold in each store have increased every month the program has been in place. More stores are clamoring to join the program and we plan to be in 60 stores by the end of the year. In 2013, sales of 55,000 fresh, healthy products replaced the sale of honey buns, cupcakes, and candy bars. Will that end obesity? No. Is it a good start to empowering at-risk community members to eat healthier on tight budgets? Absolutely.

These days we seem to want to have a guarantee of crossing the finish line first before we even start, let alone go through the hard, uncertain work that it will take to win that race. We don’t know how long it will take to get our obesity epidemic under control. The struggle may last for generations. What we do know with absolute certainty, however, is that if we don’t start employing a wide array of creative approaches and begin using data to shape, rather than squash, promising initial attempts, we will never get there.

25 Years Of Changing Lives

, January 21st, 2014
The First Family Visits DC Central Kitchen

We were honored to host President Obama and the First Family at DC Central Kitchen on January 20th, 2014 for a day of service to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo credit: The White House.

25 years ago yesterday, a young nightclub manager named Robert Egger parked his used delivery van at the back door of an inaugural ball and recovered the first pan of food ever donated to DC Central Kitchen. He wasn’t an expert in food systems or social work, but he was dissatisfied with the way his hometown treated leftover food and jobless adults—in short, he was sick of seeing both of them thrown away.

Robert’s ideas were simple but revolutionary. By bringing donated food to one central kitchen and creating an economy of scale, Robert was able to fight waste and prepare higher quality meals for the District’s shelters and nonprofits. And more importantly, he could recruit unemployed or homeless adults to come to that kitchen, enroll in a culinary training program, and help make those very meals. He created a way to shorten this city’s line of hungry people by the very way he fed it.

For a quarter-century, we’ve worked tirelessly to fulfill Robert’s original vision and build on it in pioneering new ways. Today, we earn over 60% of our revenue through job-creating social enterprises. We are as much a business as we are a nonprofit—it’s just that our best-selling product is empowerment. From fighting food waste to investing in local farmers to helping our culinary graduates average a 90% job placement rate, DC Central Kitchen is on the cutting edge of our community’s most essential needs.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished since our first day of operations, but disappointed that our services are still needed. Robert Egger designed DC Central Kitchen so that our very model would ultimately put ourselves out of business. Thank you for believing in that model and investing in a brighter, more inclusive future.

We Are The Job Creators

, February 6th, 2013

Culinary Job Training Class 91 students at the Cook Off

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.

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.

Give the Gift of a Brighter Future

, December 14th, 2012

The holidays are a time for family, food, and renewed hope. In this season – and throughout the year – DC Central Kitchen brings all three together, helping struggling families access nutritious food and build brighter futures.

You can help build these brighter futures by donating today.

DC Central Kitchen uses fresh, local food to change the lives of low-income children and families. Our unique wraparound approach to child nutrition helps kids eat healthy in school, after school, during summer vacation, and even at their neighborhood corner stores.

Our fresh take on fighting hunger is making an impact. Last week, I opened an email from a special education teacher who works in one of the 10 DC schools where we serve healthy, scratch-cooked meals each day. “I cannot begin to tell you what a difference you have made,” she wrote. “As a teacher, I am very aware of the food that students eat, and the difference is amazing!”

Thank you for being a vital part of the work we do. Through Saturday, your gift will be matched 100 percent by the 15 Foundation. Donate now and double your impact!