While in Washington DC last week for the Feeding America Summit I managed to fulfill a long overdue objective – a tour of DC Central Kitchen.
I of course had known about DC Central Kitchen for a long time and the great work being done there, and had met founder Robert Egger and some of the staff previously – but somehow had not had the chance to see the operation firsthand. I was not disappointed.
Andrea Talhami of DCCK was gracious enough to give me and my two colleagues from Rolling Harvest Food Rescue a tour — along with two recently-met colleagues from Second Harvest Food Bank in Toronto – forming an impromptu coalition of individuals with a passion for redirecting excess food resources to feed people in need.
My first thought on entering DCCK was that it embodies “the power of why” so eloquently laid out by Simon Sinek in his incredible TED talk. In discussing how employees and customers become dedicated to an organization and its brand/mission, Sinek notes that “people don’t care about what you do, they care about why you do it.” In the case of DCCK, I think it’s both. What DCCK does, and has been doing since 1989, is amazing, as is the why behind it – helping to build community while providing life skills training to lift individuals out of poverty.
From the moment you walk in to DCCK, you pick up on the positive vibe – the energy – revolving around caring people doing something really good. Every person had a smile, a kind word, and a sense of purpose – and the place was bustling with activity. The incredible smells emanating from the kitchen area added to the experience; it was clear that great things were happening there — and they happen every day, 365 days a year.
And walking around the kitchen, observing a culinary class session, and seeing food going into and out of ovens to be packed up for meals, we quickly obtained a sense of just how much productive work occurs in a relatively small place each day.
DCCK’s mission is to “use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities,” and they’ve now been doing it for 28 years. It makes perfect sense to me, because few things connect humanity more powerfully than food. The organization was the country’s first community kitchen focusing on capturing excess food from the local region and linking that food to culinary job training, thus breaking the cycle of hunger and poverty by enabling individuals to obtain jobs. As such, DCCK is a root cause solution to hunger rather than a temporary band-aid.
Through its Community Meals Program, DCCK converts 3,000 pounds of food daily (much of which would otherwise go to waste) into 5,000 healthy meals for more than 80 partner organizations (shelters, rehabilitation clinics, and schools) in the Washington, DC area. All of those meals go out “family style” – which in addition to a lot of creativity and commitment requires considerable logistics expertise as well. The meals not only provide needed nutrition to the recipients, but they provide an additional benefit — allowing partner organizations to save financial resources which can be directed to their core programs.
During the summer, DCCK receives large amounts of fresh produce which employees and volunteers process and freeze so that it can be drawn on for meals throughout the winter. This helps the environment by reducing the harmful effects of food waste, and helps people in need receive nutritious meals. Conceptually simple, brilliantly implemented.
What’s really impressive is DCCK’s commitment to funding half of its operations through its own operations, along with the many related innovative social ventures it develops to break the cycle of hunger and poverty. For example, an intensive, 14-week Culinary Job Training program provides students with the skills needed for culinary careers on a no-cost (scholarship) basis, and achieves a 90% placement rate for graduates. Second, the Healthy School Food Program provides nutritious, locally-sourced meals and education to low-income children in DC schools.
A third great example is its Healthy Corners program, which seeks to address the systemic problem of the lack of accessible healthy food choices in urban food deserts. Through this initiative, DCCK partners with more than 60 corner stores in the DC area, supplying fresh produce and healthy snacks at low (wholesale) prices and, significantly, in quantities lower than those required by food distributors. This allows the store owners to sell the produce at a profit while creating a cycle of demand for healthy food choices among consumers very much in need of them. Further, DCCK continually develops new items so that individuals can eat healthy on the go, and also provides needed nutrition education and cooking classes to help constituents consider changes to their diets and shopping habits. Significantly, DCCK demonstrates to store owners that selling healthy food choices can be good business – and helps them in transitioning to purchases from existing food distributors. In sum, it’s a very creative solution, and an incredibly important one – a truly systemic approach to the problem of urban food deserts.
Last, DCCK scales its model through its Campus Kitchen Project, in which students from across the country capture excess food from campus dining halls and transform it into meals for local relief agencies. Beyond feeding people and preventing the waste of food, the program builds community and helps students develop leadership skills with a social focus.
All of these great initiatives attract individuals who want to take part, and as a result, volunteer shifts are in high demand (a great situation for any non-profit). Andrea noted that volunteer scheduling takes place three months in advance, and that nearly every day some school or corporate group participates. She also noted that volunteer groups come not only from out of state, but from out of the country to help out and experience DCCK. That truly exemplifies the power of the DCCK story.
So many great things are happening here — feeding people, improving nutrition, jobs training, reducing waste, building community, creating hope, restoring dignity — the list goes on. It’s a powerful story, and it starts with and revolves around the power of food.
Well done, everyone at DC Central Kitchen.