3 Lessons From a Leading D.C. Food Nonprofit



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At the base of my right index finger is a slowly healing blister. Not the result of gardening or hammering, but of cutting sweet potatoes for nearly two straight hours. It was a welcomed badge of honor. I had been volunteering at DC Central Kitchen, one of the great "charities" in the United States.

I put charities in quotes because while volunteering does social good, DC Central Kitchen does not do it in the usual manner. It prepares about 4,500 meals per day for shelters and other sites. There are three unusual things about DC Central Kitchen. First, the meals are prepared largely by ex-cons—an integral part of the Kitchen's mission. After cutting all those sweet potatoes I was told to rip the meat off of turkey bones for a soup; my partner was a guy with a shaved head and tattoos all over his arms. The assistant head of the kitchen came over and asked me what I did. He told me he had been at the Kitchen for three years but that previously he had been behind bars for 10 years on drug charges. My meat-ripping partner had been released the week before from a prison in Tennessee after serving five years. The Kitchen trains ex-cons for work in the food industry mainly as chefs and kitchen staff. It has an incredible 90 percent job placement and retention rate—frequently at many of the best restaurants in D.C. It was clear that these guys desperately wanted the training, and saw the resulting gainful employment as a way out of their old habits.

These vegetables would normally be plowed under. Now DC Central Kitchen buys them at 10 to 30 cents on the dollar.

The second impressive component is the destination of the meals. It is true that the Kitchen prepares meals for charities, but it also runs a top-end catering business for law and lobbying firms. In addition, it supplies meals to a charter school and has recently bid on serving meals to seven D.C. public schools.

But the Kitchen's most interesting new business venture is as a food distributor. To make money on nutritious meals for the schools, the Kitchen had to get food cheaply. It went to farmers in the Shenandoah and began buying giant two-handed cabbages, sweet potatoes with spots, and other perfectly nutritious vegetables that were blemished or otherwise "defective" and could not be sold to consumers. These vegetables would normally be plowed under. Now DC Central Kitchen buys them at 10 to 30 cents on the dollar. Moreover, the Kitchen has begun distributing these locally grown vegetables to six "white tablecloth" restaurants in D.C. Everyone wins: farmers make money on what would be a dead loss, DC Central Kitchen gets cheap fresh food, children get nutritious food, and restaurants get high quality locally grown produce. All that was missing was a distributor that would move the food from the Shenandoah to D.C. A new business for the Kitchen.

What fascinated me about DC Central Kitchen was how charity soon became a thriving business that benefited everyone, especially the marginalized—ex-cons, public school students, and local farmers—and that just by ordering from the right catering company, a person could do right.

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel is an oncologist, a bioethicist, and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author or editor of 10 books, including Brothers Emanuel and Reinventing American Health Care.

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