DC Central Kitchen founder, Robert Egger, during our earlier days of food recovery and meal distribution.
What it does it mean when an organization that set out to put itself out of business turns 30?
For many traditional nonprofits, anniversaries like these are moments of celebration. They’ve persisted, grown, established programs, and built facilities. Not every well-meaning, hard-working group makes it this far, and in this sector, the simple act of survival is no small thing.
At DC Central Kitchen, we understand that impulse. When our founder Robert Egger reluctantly started our organization back in 1989, it was partially out of a sense of frustration. One person after another told this young nightclub manager that his idea of merging food recovery, meal distribution, and job training was too risky and too idealistic to ever get off the ground, let alone last for three decades. And there have been times when the doubters were nearly proven right. We’ve come awfully close to missing payroll, faced serious cash crunches, and it took a gutsy public fast by Robert and our CEO Mike Curtin to win a contractual fight with DC’s shelter system and narrowly avoid bankruptcy back in 2006. Yet despite all those challenges, here we are.
Since Robert received his first rejection letters from skeptical funders and brush-offs from established service agencies, DC Central Kitchen has served 36 million meals, prevented the waste of 32 million pounds of food, and unfailingly maintained our services for 10,957 consecutive days – no matter what. We’ve empowered 1,800 men and women facing significant barriers to employment to embark on meaningful culinary careers. And through our open source model, we’ve helped inspire scores of other ‘community kitchens’ across the United States to apply our holistic model to the challenges of hunger and poverty in their own communities.
Yes, we are proud of the work we’ve done and the way we’ve done it. And, yes, we are profoundly grateful for the innumerable partners who have chosen to work with us, the incredible donors who have taken a chance on us, and the thousands of volunteers, culinary students, and employees who have walked through our hard-to-find front door in the basement of an aging shelter and made the impossible a daily reality for thirty years.
We can feel all those things – and still feel that same frustration, irreverence, and impatience that helped fuel our founder all those years ago.
For us, turning thirty isn’t a cause for celebration. It’s a call to action.
We’ve always believed that we have a moral responsibility to put ourselves out of business by solving problems or go out of business in the attempt. As our CEO Mike Curtin has said, “We want to take things on that people say are too hard, that can’t be done. It’s easy to doubt, to say ‘let someone else do it.’ Our job is to try.” In that spirit, we are committed to tackling the biggest challenges facing our city, and using our innovative programs to inform larger, system-level changes that will make our services less necessary in the long run.
That means, in addition to training adults who have faced past struggles, we’re going to begin training young people before the cycle of incarceration, addiction, and trauma claims another generation.
That means that providing job placement isn’t enough; we’re going to focus on promoting career pathways through expanded student supports, strategic employer partnerships, and modeling equitable employment practices for the rest of our industry.
That means that serving healthy, scratch-cooked meals to 14 DC schools is just the beginning; we’re working with the District of Columbia government and a host of nonprofit and business partners to develop the practices and infrastructure needed to build a local food system that expands access to nutritious, local food to every ward while creating new economic opportunities for long-time residents.
We’re pushing ahead in these positive ways because frustration isn’t the only force that’s fueled us over the years. From the beginning, as Robert will tell you, DC Central Kitchen has been powered by love too. In an increasingly mean age, talk of love might sound schmaltzy or naïve, but to us, love has never been more needed. We’re doubling down on our fearless commitments to showing love and respect to everyone we interact with, to envisioning a more inclusive and just city, and to responding to trying times with an irrepressible hope that, with enough help from our friends, we can make things better.
So, over the course of 2019, we’ll be reflecting on where we’ve been, saying lots of “thank yous” to the people and partners who have made our progress possible, and sharing more about what’s ahead for us. We hope you’ll join us on this journey and contribute to the conversation.
Thanks to the incredible support of our community, DC Central Kitchen will be here, taking on the toughest challenges, for as long as this city needs us. But we’re redoubling our efforts to ensure that over time, this city won’t need us quite so much. And that would be something to celebrate.