Nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen delivers healthy meals and opportunities for the needy

There’s an outfit in Washington D.C., that delivers some 6,000 meals a day. It’s not the Pentagon; in fact, it has nothing to do with the government.

They are produced by a nonprofit, D.C. Central Kitchen, and the meals go to district public schools and people in need. Mike Curtin is the CEO.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Exactly what does D.C. Central Kitchen do?

Mike Curtin: A lot of what people know us for is the meals we cook and prepare, but really at the heart of what we’re doing is our culinary job training program. It is geared toward men and women who are coming out of prison, in recovery from addiction, homeless or chronically unemployed.  We aim to put them in a place where they have an opportunity to break that cycle of homelessness, hunger and poverty on their own.

LRK: So the idea is to train them to cook?

MC: Right. We realize that one of the wonderful things about the hospitality business is that there are always jobs there. It’s probably one of the only industries in which you can start at the very bottom and end up at the very top, if you’re willing to put in the hard work and the effort.

We’re talking about folks who have faced unimaginable obstacles -- sadly, many of them are there by their own doing -- but have come to a point in their lives where they want a change. They want to live self-sufficiently, they want to be back with their families, they want to be part of the community, and this is a great avenue for us to do that.

LRK: You also have a program that works with the public school system doing lunch.

MC: In addition to running the social service programs, we do between $4.5 million and $5 million a year in business -- hospitality business and social enterprise with a focus on the community. It started years ago with catering and now involves school food.


Catered meals from the DC Central Kitchen.

We are producing about 4,000 meals a day just for schools. They are cooked from scratch by graduates of our program and include locally sourced ingredients to provide healthy, fresh and nutritious food for students in the D.C. area.

LRK: Wait a minute. You're supplying public schools with healthy, locally sourced food within the budget that’s allowed for school lunch by the government?

MC: We’re close. The district enacted legislation on top of the federal school lunch legislation this year that provides a little extra money above and beyond the federal subsidy. The federal number is roughly $2.80, so if we could get just over $3.00 we would be closer to where we should be as a country.

None of the food we are using is frozen, processed or out of a box. Around 40 percent of the products, produce, dairy and even protein is local and cooked from scratch.

LRK: How do you pull this off?

MC: The kitchen has been doing things for more than two decades that people didn’t think were possible. When Robert Edgar proposed the kitchen 23 years ago, people thought he was nuts. People thought it was insane: the idea of using food that was going to be thrown away, using people that had been marginalized, and using kitchens that weren’t being used to create this model of social change.

This is possible. One of the outlets that we use is working directly with farmers and growers by asking them to look at produce that, for aesthetic, geometric or distribution reasons, they can’t get off of their farms. This is food that is perfectly good but might be too big or too small, or maybe the farmers just don’t have the distribution mechanisms to get stuff out of, say, Shenandoah Valley.

We can bring our trucks there and pay a reasonable price for this food. In essence, we created our own commodity market using local products, so we can get it into systems at a reasonable price.

LRK: It sounds like you're running a nonprofit charitable organization the way you would run a business.

MC: Exactly. We are a $10 million business. The product that we sell happens to be empowerment, but it is indeed a business. We need to think that way in order to provide the services that we do, and our hope is that, as we continue to do these kind of programs and show that they can be successful, that businesses then, in turn, may start to think a little bit more like an nonprofit.

If we can get these two ends of the spectrum to push together in the middle and blur this line of dot-org versus dot-com, or for-profit versus nonprofit, we can all come out with better results.

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