Empowerment Through Food
To Robert Egger, much of the American food charity model is built around the redemption of the giver and not the liberation of the receiver. Egger–the founder of D.C. Central Kitchen in the nation’s capital and L.A. Kitchen on the West Coast–has spent his 30-year career building nonprofit models that challenge this notion that it’s all about giving. Instead, he uses food not just as a mechanism of nourishment but also as a way to empower individuals through job training programs, social enterprise, and repurposing food waste.
“Don’t see food as just fuel for the body, see it as fuel for a social movement,” Egger says. “Hunger is not about food; it’s about the situation that creates an economic climate in which people, for a lot of different reasons, find themselves without enough money to buy what they need.”
Before D.C. Central Kitchen went on to become a self-sustaining organization that has prepared 1,500 graduates for the culinary job market and created 49 million meals for the community, it all started as an idea Egger had after deciding to volunteer one rainy night serving food out of a vehicle.
That event stuck with him, as he felt it was simply a way of stroking the egos of volunteers instead of truly helping the people they were feeding find a path out of poverty. So he came up with a plan, combining a system to collect and use the food waste he had experienced as a foodservice worker with a program that would train people to work in culinary fields.
“In effect, I was saying: Here’s a quid pro quo system in which everybody benefits, everybody achieves something, and, most importantly, fewer people are out on the street tomorrow than there were today,” Egger says. “It makes use of food waste, feeds people better meals for less money, and provides restaurants with workers for entry-level jobs.”
While the organization had its share of challenges along the way, it has worked with entities all over the country to set up similar models in various communities.
D.C. Central Kitchen was also part of the coalition that passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, which created a liability shield for charitable food donors. “That really freed things up nationally for people to take our model and scale. As we’ve grown, we’re now doing 5,000 meals a day made from 3,000 pounds of [surplus] food,” says Alex Moore, chief development officer at the organization. “That required us to go beyond hotel and catering leftovers and look at food waste at the wholesale level, at the farm level, and at the aggregator level. What we’re looking to do is recover thousands of servings of otherwise wasted food in a single shot, bring that back to our kitchen, and re-prepare it into a balanced meal so that every meal has a protein, a starch, and a vegetable.”
In addition to its community meals and job training, D.C. Central Kitchen has also formed social enterprise programs that allow the nonprofit to contract with organizations to provide meals and bring revenues in to support its work and pay staff a living wage.
After leading the D.C. organization for 24 years, Egger founded L.A. Kitchen in 2013. The nonprofit now occupies one-third of the 60,000-square-foot food incubator space L.A. Prep.
While the model is similar to D.C. Central Kitchen, L.A. Kitchen expanded the focus to home in on an increasingly important issue: nutrition and food access for the aging population. It also received a $1 million start-up grant from AARP.
The L.A. Kitchen organization has drawn attention from many leaders in the restaurant industry, pivoting off the success of D.C. Central Kitchen and its model. José Andrés, who serves as chair emeritus for the board of directors for D.C. Central Kitchen, also occupies the same role at L.A. Kitchen.
The board also includes Karim Webb, co-owner and operations partner of PCF Restaurant Management, a Los Angeles–based franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings.
“I’m very interested in pulling people away from this idea that food waste is bad,” Egger says, “to pivot a little bit and say, ‘You know, really if you’re upset about the fact that we’re throwing away a wrinkled beet or a wrinkled carrot, what about this wrinkled person? What about this bruised person? Shouldn’t that be equally upsetting, if not more?’ So let’s put the two together. Let’s show how you can take that broken carrot and, to a certain extent, that bruised human, and create something really powerful out of that.”
The focus on senior individuals is a logical fit for this community, given that Los Angeles is home to one of the largest concentrations of older people in the country, and that demographic trend is expected to continue. According to the 2015 Los Angeles Healthy Aging Report conducted by the University of Southern California, the county’s population that is age 50 or older is expected to increase by 27 percent through 2020, while its population aged 65 or older is projected to increase by 43 percent.
“We live in a society where you can get a 99-cent burger at your local fast food place, and it’ll fill you up and it’s cheap, but to actually put your own meal together from scratch is more expensive,” says Renato Ramirez, executive chef at L.A. Kitchen. “Some of the seniors no longer have the mobility to do a lot of those things for themselves, and so we look to change the thinking so that people see this. And simply because we are providing a budgeted meal to a low-income population doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take into account the aesthetic of the food, and the nutritional content should be at the top of the list.”
Like D.C. Central Kitchen, L.A. Kitchen has three components: Impact L.A., the charitable arm of the organization that repurposes food waste for meals that charitable organizations can distribute; Empower L.A., the culinary job training program; and Strong Food, the social enterprise arm that contracts with institutions including social service agencies, healthcare providers, and city and county governments to provide meals, snacks, and food products with a focus on aging populations.
“Donation production starts at the source. We have a food recovery mission, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are trying to save old produce that is going to the garbage,” says Ryan Stewart, executive chef of Impact L.A.
“Farms have overproduction in their business models in order to meet their quotas, so we try to work out a system that benefits both parties to give that perfectly good food a home,” he continues. “That being said, I have done my fair share of peeling the outer leaves off of heads of ugly romaine so it can be used.”
Stewart explains that the organization tries to tackle the problem of produce that is not making it to market from growers. “If something isn’t pretty enough to sell, or it takes too much labor and cost to package and ship because the harvest was too small, it really is easier—and sadly, more cost effective—to just junk it,” he says. “We try to recover that produce.”
Recovering food for repurposing means using all aspects of a product, from using carrot tops for a pesto to dehydrating a pineapple core in order to create a dust or seasoning for sauces and marinades.
Through the donation production program, students in the Empower L.A. culinary program are also given a chance to improve their leadership and social interactions by teaching the volunteers cooking skills such as knife safety or making vinaigrettes.
And students for Empower L.A. come from all backgrounds, with Egger putting a specific emphasis on creating intergenerational connections between youth who are aging out of foster care and adults, including individuals returning from incarceration.
The job placement rate for graduates of Empower L.A. is 90 to 100 percent. Stewart says the graduates typically go on to work for a variety of establishments in the community, from independent operators like Good Girl Dinette and Kitchen Mouse, to larger organizations like the SBE Disruptive Restaurant Group, which includes numerous restaurant brands and locations in Southern California, Las Vegas, Miami, Dubai, and Kuwait. SBE is led by acclaimed chefs, including José Andrés, Danny Elmaleh, Katsuya Uechi, and Michael Schwartz.
“We teach culinary skills because it is somewhat of a forgiving business for those with certain backgrounds, but it also has the opportunity for advancement,” Stewart says. “Even though I teach culinary arts–food safety, knife skills, cooking techniques–the real skills I want to pass on are just three things: Come to work on time, stay busy, and follow your boss’s instructions. If you can do those things, you can really work anywhere. People pay $20,000 to go to culinary school, then at the end realize they don’t want to do it as a career. I want our graduates to excel in this field, but be prepared to do anything.”
A New Model
Teaching graduates a path to a culinary career through charitable and social enterprise food preparation diverts from the traditional food-donation model, Egger says. It actually encourages a path to independence from the system rather than perpetuating it, all the while putting a focus on nutritious produce and meals that are not just cans and shelf-stable products.
“It’s always right to feed somebody; that’s never going to be wrong. But if you’re just doing that day after day after day, you’re participating in the system,” he says, adding that no one stops and asks about the specific kind of food that is being moved.
“What’s sad is that the anti-hunger movement has huge culpability in the rate of diabetes and obesity among the poor, because for 30 or 40 years we’ve been redistributing junk and calling it fighting hunger. We haven’t used that food to liberate people. We’ve created a system in which people are somewhat indentured to their local pantry to get food, and then that food is poisoning them.”
With its Strong Food division, L.A. Kitchen is also challenging existing models of what contract food—and its nutritional and aesthetic value—can be for seniors.
“There are some very long-established relationships between agencies and the predominant caterer that’s out there right now,” Ramirez says. “If you don’t look at the aspects of nutrition and quality of food, the system’s not broken. The food comes in every day at the right temperature, and there’s a plate for everybody who’s at one of the centers or [receiving food] through Meals on Wheels, but that nutrition aspect—and providing the best possible meal that we can—is something that hasn’t been in place previously. That’s the piece where we really want to bring about some change.”
Egger says the organization is operating at between 15 to 20 percent of its overall capacity, creating about 6,000 weekly community meals and several thousand meals for contracts. The goal is to increase the contract meals so that the organization is providing 10,000 to 12,000 meals per day.
“Our model is that we’re sourcing local. We’re employing people with living wages, we’re producing scratch-cooked healthier meals, and the profit never leaves town,” Egger says. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate a lot of the foodservice trends that rich people are experiencing. When they go out and get a beautiful, big quinoa bowl for $15, we’re trying to do that for poor people—but we’re stymied oftentimes. ... We’re constantly being confronted by bureaucrats who are like ‘no, no, no.’”
As for what nonprofit volunteers, restaurants, and businesses can do to help advance the missions of L.A. Kitchen and D.C. Central Kitchen in other communities, representatives suggest thinking outside the box of the traditional methods to fight hunger. “If you still conceive of charitable work in that old-style mindset of can drives and soup kitchens, then you’re missing an opportunity to invest in a more sustainable nonprofit solution,” Moore says. “The biggest thing we can do is put more people back to work, because that’s ultimately how we put ourselves out of business.”
For starters, he says, the business community should become more inclusive in its hiring practices. “Look at what people have in terms of their skills and readiness today, not necessarily at things that may be in their background—like gaps in employment or periods of incarceration,” he continues. “That [perspective] will allow the foodservice industry to access more talent.”