Food Fight: D.C. Central Kitchen’s Unique Approach to Fighting Hunger

By Jeffery Leon

November 20, 2017

Graduates of D.C. Central Kitchen

In the October issue of Washington Lawyer, we explored the growing food deserts in the District of Columbia, where the city’s poorest residents struggle to gain access to healthy foods. Below is an expanded interview with Alexander Moore, chief development officer of D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization created in 1989 to attack hunger issues in the nation’s capital. D.C. Central Kitchen has been nationally recognized for its unique approach, including “recycling” food from local farms and restaurants and its intensive program that trains D.C. residents for careers in the culinary industry.

What are D.C. Central Kitchen’s current big initiatives?

The center of our organization and mission is our Culinary Job Training program. When people think about food deserts and hunger, they often think about feeding, but we know that hunger is a deeper symptom of poverty. So when we train men and women with high barriers to employment—like histories of incarceration, addiction, or homelessness—and get them back to work with a 90 percent job placement rate, we know we're creating the underlying conditions for people to be able to feed themselves in the long term.

However, thinking of that old adage, “Is it better to give a man a fish, or teach a man to fish,” D.C. Central Kitchen decided we should do both. Right now, we employ 80 of our own culinary graduates full-time at living wages and good benefits. Those men and women help us to break the cycle of hunger and poverty, as they’re responsible for serving more than three million meals to people in need each year and they take part in every program we offer, from training the next generation of our culinary students to helping corner stores stock healthy food.

How do you connect with residents?

We work with more than 30 different area partners to help recruit men and women for whom our programs might be a good fit, and we're looking for people for whom walking into a kitchen right now and interviewing for a job and getting a job might be impossible. We want to be that last open door for someone to participate in our city's economy. We're a one-stop shop for economic development, [offering] everything from hands-on vocational training with industry-recognized credentials, mental health counseling, referral support for child care and housing, and even two full years of supportive services after folks graduate from our program to help them get that promotion or wage increase. We try to be that single source for everything someone needs to enter the hospitality industry.

Tell us about D.C. Central Kitchen’s meal distribution services.

Alexander Moore of D.C. Central Kitchen

We serve two million meals per year to the city's homeless shelter and nonprofit networks, so there are over 80 frontline agencies all across D.C. that are receiving our meals, which are customized to their operation and capacity. That effort saves those frontline agencies about $3.7 million a year in food and labor costs. We also prevent almost a million pounds of food waste here in D.C. annually, and ensure that food reaches people in need.

The other million meals are served through our partnerships with schools. We are the food vendor for 14 D.C. schools, 11 of them in Ward 7, which is recognized as a food desert. All our meals are cooked from scratch and feature local ingredients.

What is it like working within these communities?

It’s easy to assume that low-income children generally aren't interested in healthy local food, but what we've concluded through our Healthy School Food program is that what we're really seeing is a market failure, where stereotypes and lazy perceptions of our low-income communities have discouraged the private sector from investing in a real and growing market for healthy food.

People are demanding more access to fresh, healthy, and local food. They know what's important for their diets and for their family. What we're trying to do is capture that demand and demonstrate it, so other actors like grocery stores will enter this space and make healthy food available. We also work to give folks the confidence and skills they need to cook at home and do menu planning that stretches every dollar so that ultimately, they can invest those resources in their families’ health.

Tell us more about your food recycling efforts.

We've been on the frontline in the fight against food waste since 1989. We specialize in recovering fresh produce, raw protein, and other essentials for making a real meal. Often there's this idea of “we can just take the discards of society, that'll be good enough,” and that's just not the case. We know that people need access to healthy, dignified food, so we specialize in recovering food at scale that would be wasted by wholesale and large food service businesses, including event venues, convention centers, and farms.

Regionally, the small and mid-size farms we buy from for our Healthy School Food program wastes almost 40 percent of everything they grow because it’s the wrong size, shape, or color. Because we're processing all that produce, it doesn't matter what that carrot or sweet potato looks like initially because we can cut it down and find the element that is useful for our efforts.

We've created a new revenue stream for farmers because we can buy their ugly fruits and vegetables. We can send volunteers to pick this produce, or we can buy them for pennies on the pound and that drives down our food costs compared to buying from a larger wholesaler.

What is the demand for your services like in the city?

Demand for our Healthy Corners program continues to grow. There are more stores that want to participate than we're currently serving, and consumers say they want to see more products on the shelves in a wider variety. We're continuing to test and introduce new product lines, which reflects some significant consumer demand.

Our Healthy School Food program has outstanding participation rates, and kids continue to tell us that they love what we're serving. We're even offering cooking lessons for parents to help them replicate the recipes kids love in school. We also make it possible for those ingredients to be purchased at nearby corner stores with recipe cards and instructions.

How can attorneys get involved?

We need to focus on how to promote equitable economic opportunity here in D.C., which will move the needle more than any singular food effort. If you want to come down and get your hands dirty in a non-kitchen way, conducting mock interviews for our Culinary Job Training students is a great way to have a direct impact. It takes one to two hours to interview a whole slate of our candidates, and that's a large benefit to someone and gives them a chance to prepare for their job interviews.

If you do want to get your hands dirty, we welcome volunteers here in our kitchen and make it easy to register at Coming down to one of America's largest homeless shelters and chopping enough vegetables for us to serve 5,000 meals in a single day is incredible. You'll be working alongside graduates of our Culinary Job Training program to do that work, which ties the whole mission together.