Fangirl Friday is a semi-regular feature highlighting an environmental and/or social justice non-profit group. It’s named as such because asking me about some ecological or poverty-related issue can be as dangerous as asking a comic book fan about her favorite Batman storyline. However, I also love graphic novels, so you may want to be careful about that as well.
I haven’t done one of these since February, so even “semi-regularly” is stretching it. However, as people are the most likely to contribute to charity towards the end of the year, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one of my favorite organizations: D.C. Central Kitchen.
D.C. Central Kitchen is unique among community food organizations for its focus on financial and environmental sustainability. There is certainly a place in the world for emergency food services, especially in the current economy. As such, D.C. Central Kitchen does provide food directly to the needy. They produce and deliver 4,500 meals a day to 100 different partner agencies in D.C. who serve various constituencies, including the homeless, recovering drug addicts, children, and senior citizens. But what’s so important about D.C. Central Kitchen is that they think beyond the short-term need to envision what a truly sustainable, just food system would look like. Or in other words, their motto: “We use food as a tool to strengthen our community.”
How exactly they do that varies from project to project, but it’s all part of one vision, where growing and eating food are never truly separate.
For example, while many food programs rely on a combination of canned donated goods and expensive wholesale produce, D.C. Central Kitchen works with local farmers through the Farm to Kitchen initiative. Through this partnership, they buy produce that doesn’t always look “pretty” but is perfectly good, at a discounted rate far below the wholesale food price. It’s also economically positive for the farmers, who wouldn’t be able to sell or would sell at a lower price much of what the Central Kitchen takes. By taking the extra step of building that partnership, the organization supports the local sustainable food system, provides its clients with better food than it could otherwise, and saves itself money.
Part of that “bigger picture” also includes a focus on education, both of the youngest generation and of people who need it in adulthood. For kids, they’re working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s People’s Garden to operate a “truck farm.” They’ve planted a garden on wheels on the back of a pick-up truck to teach kids in schools around the city. In addition to getting them involved in gardening, it also helps get the kids excited about eating fresh produce that they may not have been willing to try otherwise. Then, the organization moves from teaching about growing food to serving it with the Healthy Returns program, where they serve healthy snacks and provide nutritional education.
For adult education, they have a professional culinary job training program, where they work with unemployed and underemployed folks to train them for careers in food service. The full-day 16 week course is shorter than attending culinary school, but they learn many of the same skills that Chris did for his degree, such as knife skills, preparing stocks, and seafood cookery. The students even benefit from Chris’s culinary school professors, as L’Academie de Cuisine lends them out to D.C. Central Kitchen for a few days a term. On top of learning specific skills, participants also benefit from workforce specialists that tutor them in general job skills like writing resumes and computer literacy. In 2010 alone, 92 people graduated from the program with a 90 percent job placement rate and a 73 percent job retention rate after six months of employment. Most importantly, of those 92 people, 71 of them were ex-offenders. Here’s an awesome video from one participant talking about how one day she’d like to own her own catering company. This program truly shows that given the right resources, people with past problems can make great contributions if we as a society give them the chance to do so.
All of these programs tie together in the Fresh Start Catering program. This program is a full-service catering company that offers such classic dishes like seared crab cakes, Moroccan-spiced beef kabab, and portabella mushrooms and roasted peppers. They specifically work to source ingredients from local farmers in season while still providing food at a reasonable price. And best of all, all of their staff except for the Executive Chef are graduates from the Culinary Job Training program. This initiative even ties back into working with kids because several of the catering company’s clients are local schools. Working with charter and private schools (as well as other local businesses) that can pay for this service supports the financial sustainability of D.C. Central Kitchen. Those profits then recycle back into programs to serve those in need. As a purposeful social enterprise that does good and provides a level of financial self-sufficiency, it’s a wonderful model for other non-profits to follow.
So if you live in the D.C. area (or even if you don’t), I encourage you to support D.C. Central Kitchen. There’s always the normal ways, such by donating online or volunteering to prepare meals or glean crops. But if you want to get some serious entertainment and make a night of your participation, I’d recommend the Capital Food Fight, an annual fundraiser showdown featuring celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain, Ted Allen, and Todd Gray. I’ve never gotten to this fabulous event myself, but I think that may be Chris’s birthday present next year. Perhaps I’ll see you there!