By: JOE TROPEANO
DC Central Kitchen was founded in 1989 on the belief that food alone will never end hunger.
Though DC Central Kitchen recovers approximately 3,000 pounds of otherwise wasted food each day and use it to prepare 5,000 meals for Washington, DC’s homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other nonprofit partners, their programs and social enterprise activities are centered around their mission of using food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities.
At DC Central Kitchen, it’s not about giving people handouts; it’s about giving them a hand up. Their life-changing Culinary Job Training program helps marginalized men and women suffering from homelessness, incarceration, abuse, and trauma trade lives of poverty for self-sufficiency. The 14-week program offers a unique blend of what they call “knife skills and life skills” to help chronically unemployed adults enter DC’s rapidly expanding culinary industry. The program cites a 90% job placement rate for its more than 100 annual graduates.
What’s more, the organization earns 60% of its annual budget – some $8 million annually — through three of its own social enterprises. These “for-purpose” businesses create good jobs for graduates of the training program while contributing to a more secure, equitable food system in Washington, DC.
DC Central Kitchen’s first venture into social enterprise came in 1997 with its catering arm, Fresh Start Catering, to provide jobs in the culinary field to recent graduates. Since then, the operation has continued to grow, catering high-profile events for local businesses, and recently entered into the “grab-and-go” retail space with a local small business incubator called Union Kitchen.
In 2007, the organization made the leap into school foods and began offering healthy, scratch-cooked, and locally-sourced meals to schools in low-income communities. Now at 11 total schools in Washington, DC and boasting the highest lunch participation rate of any DC Public Schools food service provider, DC Central Kitchen is proving that school food can be enjoyable for children, affordable for school districts, and valuable for teachers who need children to be nourished and focused. This past October, the organization was awarded the prestigious Golden Carrot Grand Prize from the Physicians Committee in recognition of their exceptional work to improve the healthfulness of school food in Washington, DC.
In search of new approaches to get healthy food on the shelves of small businesses in urban food deserts, DC Central Kitchen launched Healthy Corners in 2011. It’s a unique business model, built out of partnerships with individual storeowners, where DC Central Kitchen sells produce to corner stores at wholesale prices and in smaller quantities than a conventional distributor. The stores sell the produce at affordable rates and are especially popular among customers shopping with SNAP benefits. The program won first place in the national Social Innovation Challenge organized by author and radio host Tavis Smiley and the University of Maryland in 2014.
While all of their programs have a socially conscious focus, DC Central Kitchen doesn’t consider its work to be charity; they see it as smart business practices that have the ability to improve lives and support the local economy at the same time. And, like any smart business, DC Central Kitchen wants to learn from others so that they can continue to increase their impact. That’s why in 2013 the organization became a member of the Social Enterprise Alliance. As a local Washington, DC-based nonprofit and social enterprise committed to creating opportunities for their most marginalized residents, DC Central Kitchen is working in nearly every angle of the city where food and business intersect.
Through job training, healthy food distribution, and local small business partnerships, DC Central Kitchen offers path-breaking solutions to poverty, hunger, and poor health. To learn more visit www.dccentralkitchen.org.