Fighting hunger differently at DC Central Kitchen

By Kate Seybold, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

As part of our Washington DC Immersive, our Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort had the privilege of visiting the future home of DC Central Kitchen. Executive Director Mike Curtin and Healthy Corners Program Manager Yael Reichler met with us to share about DC Central Kitchen’s history, the innovative work they are doing to create a stronger and more equitable food system, and the exciting things on the horizon for the organization.

“We Fight Hunger Differently”

DC Central Kitchen is a nonprofit and social enterprise whose mission is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities.

Curtin described DC Central Kitchen’s history to us as somewhat accidental. What started as an idea for a nightclub focused on food and music evolved into a concept for a central kitchen when nightclub manager Robert Egger became dissatisfied with the traditional charity responses to community hunger. Egger saw that food alone would not end hunger and that the fight against hunger needed to also be a fight against its principal cause: poverty. In 1989, Egger started DC Central Kitchen with a commitment to “fight hunger differently.”

The organization provides hands-on culinary training and career pathways to adults facing barriers to employment while preparing nutritious—often locally sourced—meals for the community. Under Curtin’s leadership, the operation has grown to more than 10,000 meals a day for nonprofit organizations, shelters, and more than a dozen public and private charter schools in DC’s Ward 7. DC Central Kitchen’s operational model has helped more than 1,700 people pursue culinary careers, with approximately half of the program’s graduates having been previously incarcerated. As Mike Curtin explained, food at DC Central Kitchen “isn’t just about hunger, it’s about empowerment.”

Healthy Corner Stores

DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners Program is yet another example of how the organization has thought outside the box to address community barriers to food. The Healthy Corners Program works with local corner stores to expand community access to fresh produce. DC Central Kitchen acts as a wholesaler for the corner stores, offering them fresh fruits and vegetables (including pre-cut fruit processed in house by their culinary program) to sell in their stores at affordable prices. Participating corner stores also receive coolers, technical support, nutrition training, and in-store cooking demos. The program currently works with 53 corner stores—including several in the city’s 7th and 8th wards where, as Reichler explained, there is otherwise only 1 grocery store for every 50,000 people.

Thanks to grant funding, the Healthy Corners Program has been able to provide matching SNAP benefits at 29 of the participating stores—which has led to a 350% increase in sales since 2018. However, the success of this model is dependent on stores applying for and maintaining status as SNAP-authorized retailers—which Curtin and Reichler emphasized is not always easy. They shared that in the last 4 months, 4 corner stores have had their SNAP services suspended, due to issues such as accidentally accepting EBT for non-eligible items such as plastic silverware. For owners that aren’t familiar navigating the SNAP system, and particularly for those who don’t speak English, this can be an overwhelming task to remedy. Hearing this story was an important reminder for our policy-minded group of the critical role that policy-makers, as well as policy advocates, play in supporting innovative, community-based food initiatives such as this one.

D.C. Central Kitchen’s New Home

Our visit ended with a brief tour of what will soon be DC Central Kitchen’s new headquarters. Although still under construction, we could feel the significance of this new space as Curtin walked us through what will soon be a large production kitchen, public café, volunteer engagement hub, communications and recording studio, culinary training kitchen, classroom, community hub, and more. Representing a $35 million campaign for DC Central Kitchen, this new building will triple DC Central Kitchen’s capacity to prepare nutritious food, expand its job training program by 150%, create 50 new jobs, and generate more than $200 million in annual financial impact for the community.

A Food Systems Model

While DC Central Kitchen’s history may be accidental, it is clear that the organization is continuing to grow with great intention and purpose. DC Central Kitchen is a national model for how to envision and build, from the ground up, community-based food systems that serve everyone. The organization’s work shows that investment in community requires investment in food systems, and vice-versa. The stories that Curtin and Reichler shared with us underscored the need for innovation in food systems work; the importance of effective and responsive policy-making; and the intersectionality of hunger, food access, and economic development. We left DC Central Kitchen inspired and thankful for the opportunity to visit and learn.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.