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.
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.