In Our Backyard Interview: Bringing Everyone to the Table

This interview with D.C. Central Kitchen continues our In Our Backyard series. D.C. Central Kitchen does critical work to provide job training for individuals who face barriers to employment and to connect them with job opportunities. They also prepare thousands of meals every day from food that otherwise would have been thrown away. This Thanksgiving, D.C. Central Kitchen provides a valuable example of how paying workers  living wages and good benefits supports communities.

Alyssa Peterson: Can you explain the mission of D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK)?

Mike Curtin: We run a whole portfolio of social enterprise programs including catering and a locally-sourced, scratch-cooked school [meals] service here in D.C.

We also run culinary job training classes for men and women with histories of incarceration, addiction, abuse, homelessness, and chronic unemployment. We work with them intensely for 14 weeks, and empower them to find employment in the hospitality sector. If we have openings available, we will hire job training program graduates [for our social enterprise] programs… One of the beautiful things about [DCCK] is that 45% of our 150 employees are graduates of our program.

Our basic model is using what’s existing around us; whether that’s food that’s going to be thrown away, or people that have been marginalized, or kitchens that aren’t being used, or produce from farms that isn’t commercially viable because it’s aesthetically or geometrically challenged– it’s too big, or too small, or too skinny, it doesn’t fit in the right box.

We prepare 5,000 meals a day out of our main kitchen, using predominantly food that would have otherwise been thrown away from restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, food wholesalers, food producers, and farms. We then send the meals we prepare to agencies [(non-profits and shelters)] that are working to empower and liberate their clients. We are very intentional about this model. Our goal isn’t to simply pass out food in the hopes that someday that will end hunger. We’re never going to feed our way out of hunger.

Video Credit: Saba Aregai (Portfolio)

Alyssa: In terms of empowering and liberating clients, do you have an example of that?

Mike Curtin: The goal is to help people get to the place of self-sufficiency so that they have a job that pays a good wage that hopefully has benefits. One of the things that we often forget when we talk about civil rights leaders in the past, such as Dr. King, Gandhi, Chavez, or Bobby Kennedy, is that these folks were not just talking about physical inclusion.

Dr. King was not fighting and ultimately dying for the right for anyone to walk into any restaurant and sit at any table; [it] was for the right for anyone to walk into any restaurant, to sit at any table, and to be able to afford that meal. So it’s the economic freedom and the economic inclusion that we’re looking for.

For example, a student comes from a shelter into our training program. They’ve been incarcerated, maybe in a halfway house, maybe in prison for 30 years. Maybe this person is in their 50s and has never had a job. Maybe this person has children. And they come to us, and they go through the training program, and they get a job. And they get out of the halfway house. They get their own apartment. They support their families. That’s empowerment. That’s liberation. It’s a small start, but it’s a start.

Some of the most rewarding times for us are when graduates come in and show a gas bill or a lease they just signed. Someone may come in with a new set of keys to a house, and the only people that they’ve known that have had keys for the last 30 years were prison guards.

Alyssa: What separates your training program from others and also contributes to its success?

Mike Curtin: I think one of the things that makes the program different is that it’s part of this larger enterprise. People that work here in the kitchen are graduates of [our training] program. The woman who’s the director of that program was a heroin addict for 20 years. She got clean and went to culinary school and then eventually ended up coming here.

Even if some of us don’t have those particular stories, all of us come here a little broken, including myself. But I’ve been lucky to live in safe communities, go to good schools, and have a stable family life. I made a lot of mistakes, but I always had someone put me back on track.

We really try to create this environment where we’re all around this same table. It will only work if we work together.

A lot of the folks that come to us didn’t have those privileges. For that reason, we meet people where they are. In the old charity model in America, there’s one group—typically the wealthier, white group— saying, “Thank goodness that we’re here for you poor, uneducated, and formerly incarcerated people. Now we’re going to save you. Now we’re going to help you.”

In contrast, we really try to create this environment where we’re all around this same table. [It] will only work if we work together, regardless of whether a person is a felon, an addict, or homeless. We’re all cutting the same carrots, and we’re all learning how to do this together.

Alyssa: Does DCCK do a lot of advocacy in D.C.? Were you involved in the Ban the Box fight, for example?

Mike Curtin: We were. We are not an advocacy organization per se, [but] we work very closely with other organizations in town that are advocacy organizations.

Ban the Box was a big thing for us. We’ve been banging that drum for at least ten years. We know that the majority of people who get out of prison reoffend and go back again mostly because they can’t get a job. At DCCK, our recidivism rate is less than 2.5% because people get jobs, and they feel like they’re part of something bigger. They want to be part of the community. Nobody wants to be in prison, [and] nobody wants to live in the shelter.

Alyssa: It seems like your business model differs markedly from companies that don’t necessarily share your purpose. Why do you pay good wages and benefits as a company?

Mike Curtin: I don’t think we can expect other employers to provide benefits and pay living wages if we don’t do it ourselves. What we want to do is act as a model for what’s possible.

We start everyone at a living wage. We paid 100% of health insurance long before the ACA [(Affordable Care Act)] was ever around. Everyone has short-term and long-term disability insurance and a life insurance policy. We make a 50% match to every dollar that someone contributes to our 401k plan. We have a very liberal, very generous paid vacation and time off policy. Everyone who works here…from the newest hourly employer to myself has the exact same benefits.

However, in many ways we have an advantage. We are a mission-motivated business. We’re in business not to make dollars, but to make change in both senses of that word. We’re okay if we run our businesses, and we break even because the act of running that impact-oriented business has accomplished many of our goals.

We want business in general and others to think more like we do. A lot of people are saying now that non-profits need to think and act more like businesses. To a certain degree, yes. We have payroll to make just like everyone else. We have bills to pay, gas to put in our trucks, uniforms to buy, and food to purchase. But I think the role of non-profits—particularly non-profits who are operating social enterprises—is to get businesses to think more like non-profits and to recognize the value of these multiple bottom lines.



Will Louisville Be Next to Raise the Minimum Wage? (Updated)

UPDATE (December 19): Louisville just became the first southern city to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. The increase will take effect by 2017. Louisville is the 12th U.S. city to raise the minimum wage this year.  Congratulations to Councilwoman Attica Scott, Kentucky Jobs with Justice, and the many allies who have worked on this issue.

Linda lives at a local shelter with two children. She works full-time in the health care industry and earns $8 per hour, resulting in a yearly income of $16,640 before taxes. Even in the unlikely event Linda were to find an apartment for less than $600 per month with cheap utilities, she would still have only $200 left for all of her other monthly bills, including food, clothing, transportation, child care, and health care. Finding an apartment she can afford also might mean living in a neighborhood where it is difficult to get to work.

Linda’s story of struggling from paycheck-to-paycheck is one that we hear far too often in Louisville and across the nation. Unfortunately, Congress and our state legislature have both failed to raise the current $7.25 an hour minimum wage. Now, low-wage workers in Louisville have placed their hope in the hands of the Louisville Metro Council and Mayor Greg Fisher.

The current proposal supported by workers and advocates would gradually increase Louisville’s minimum wage over three years to $10.10. This is only a start, since it is significantly less than the $11.48 living wage that former Mayor Jerry Abramson called for during his tenure. Moreover, the average monthly rent in Louisville is $694 and families will need to earn $13 per hour in order to afford housing and other household expenditures.  Like Linda, more than half of the adults living in Louisville homeless shelters are employed, some working full-time.

With more than 18 percent of Louisvillians now living below the poverty line of $18,552 annually for a family of three, we must do what we can locally to raise the minimum wage so it is no longer a poverty wage. An estimated 22 percent of low-wage workers in Louisville would benefit from a minimum wage increase, including 62,500 workers who make less than $10.10, and another 24,800 workers who would indirectly benefit once wage scales were adjusted upward.

And while the opposition would have us believe that undeserving teenagers working in the fast food industry will primarily benefit from an increased minimum wage, the fact is that among affected workers the average age is 35 years old; more than one-third are at least 40 years old; and most of the workers are women.  I hear the opposition clearly when they say that there may be minimal job loss, or that raising the minimum wage will not end poverty; and I understand that some businesses may have to increase their prices.

But the cost of goods and services is already increasing every year without the benefit of a minimum wage increase. And while raising the minimum wage will not end poverty, it will indeed help move some people out of poverty, and others who are on the cusp of poverty will no longer need assistance.

In order to help businesses adapt to increased wages, sponsors of the Louisville minimum wage legislation intentionally designed it to increase gradually over three years. We are committed to supporting businesses and we have proven that repeatedly by providing economic development incentives. During the last decade, we have used tax dollars to give tax breaks to the Yum Center, General Electric, Kentucky Kingdom, Colonial Gardens, and Cordish Companies, just to name a few beneficiaries. Now we are asking businesses to invest in their workers.  I know that there are areas of agreement that should be our focus: reducing income inequality, creating job stability, establishing fair wages, promoting compassion, and reducing poverty. We can get there and raising the minimum wage is a good start.

As the Labor and Economic Development Committee of the Louisville Metro Council prepares to vote on the minimum wage ordinance on December 4, I hope that we keep in mind that we simply cannot afford the price of poverty and we cannot afford to ignore working families. We can and we should raise the wage in Louisville.


First Person

65 Hours a Week and No Benefits

Yesterday, the Center for American Progress Action Fund hosted an event marking the release of Half in Ten’s annual report, “Building Local Momentum for National Change.” Virgil Pack, a restaurant worker from Richmond, Virginia, offered these remarks.

Good morning, my name is Virgil Pack, I’m 45-years-old and I live in Richmond, Virginia. I’m a father of two kids—a daughter and a son. My daughter’s name is Ashleigh, she’s 21 and attending UDC in her junior year. My son’s name is Sean, he’s 13 and lives in Albany, NY.

I have worked in the restaurant industry for most of my life. I have three jobs and work about 65 hours a week but every month is a struggle to make ends meet. I’m a crew trainer for Wendy’s where I make $7.75 an hour; I’m a shift manager at Sonic’s Drive-In where I make $11.00 an hour and unfortunately they’re cutting my hours; and for my third job, I’m a crewmember at Moe’s Southwest Grill where I make $7.75 an hour.

This means that at the end of each month, I have $915 to pay for rent, utilities, and more. I pay child support for my son, Sean, which is payroll deducted from Wendy’s.  I also help my daughter Ashleigh with college.  I have absolutely no benefits at any of my jobs—no health insurance, no paid sick leave.  I have 2 years of college under my belt and I used to run my own business, but in this economy, this is the only work I can find. God forbid I get seriously ill or injured, I’d probably be homeless.

Like the federal minimum wage, Virginia’s minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour, which you can see is just simply not a livable wage. And to make low and inadequate wages even worse, the lack of benefits makes it that much harder to get by: without paid sick days or paid leave, I’m forced to choose between going to work sick or losing needed income to support my family, or possibly even losing my job, and if there’s a family emergency I have to choose between the same impossible choices.

However, I am excited to say that I have an appointment with a navigator on Thursday of this week to enroll in a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act. The idea that I will shortly have health insurance is such a huge weight off my shoulders and an absolute blessing for me and my family.  However, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Without higher wages and better quality jobs, I’ll still be running in place.

In Virginia, raising the wage would affect over 744,000 workers, which is more than 20 percent of the workforceAnd many people like me, work so hard, yet with wages so low and no paid leave or other benefits, we’re stuck or falling behind. Not only would raising the wage enable families like mine to put more food on the table and know that we can pay rent each month, it would make us feel appreciated and respected as workers.

I would like to take the time to say that I’m not up here for sympathy but I would like for people to see that there are Americans trying to live right and would like a fair chance at the American dream, which to me is family and prosperity….

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this opportunity.


First Person

After the Election: Organize, Mobilize, Agitate…then Vote.

Editor’s Note: On the weekend following the election, the Half in Ten campaign co-hosted a poverty summit in Miami, Florida with Catalyst Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a community and economy that benefit all of the state’s residents.  More than 200 political and civic leaders, advocates, and community residents discussed a range of issues and strategies to address them, including: Medicaid expansion, immigration reform, criminal justice, housing and transportation, wages and opportunity, education, and media coverage of poverty. 

Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard closed the summit with the following remarks.

I lead the Florida Democratic Party so on Wednesday I was pretty spent emotionally and physically.  But this anti-poverty summit we had just around the corner made me psyched.  It served as a reminder: “Time to get up off your butt.  We got work to do.”

We’ve got to organize, and we’ve got to change hearts and minds.

And we have a message that we can’t forget and have to keep pushing: People are suffering.  People are suffering.  People are suffering.  Not only in Miami, Florida, but nationwide—and we must serve as a catalyst for change.

There is a lot of money, and a lot of egos, trying to deafen this message.  And we need to stop waiting on ‘go betweens’ to deliver our message for us.

You don’t need people to be your voice—you are the voice

You all are the halls of power.  You don’t need people to be your voice—you are the voice.  You need to be active—at city hall, at the state capitol, and in Washington, DC.

People will see in you a chance to change the world we live in.  They will see the ability to be their own Gandhi, their own Dr. King, their own catalyst for change.

There’s only one way to change income inequality in this country: organize, mobilize, agitate and disrupt the current flow of B.S. from Tallahassee to D.C.

Your job is to hold the policymakers fully accountable.  And that doesn’t begin at the ballot box.  It needs to be a constant barrage that says, ‘If you are not the change agent I need, you are dismissed.’

And we need to believe in the power of the vote.  Scotland recently voted on whether to separate from Great Britain—89 percent of the voting population participated.

That’s called democracy.

Denmark—on a regular basis—has no less than 86 percent voter participation.  That’s why they have a $22 an hour minimum wage.  Unionized labor.  Universal healthcare.  Paid college tuition.  How?  It begins and ends with 86 percent participation every election.

When you average about 40 percent participation like we do in the United States—you get what you deserve.

So organize, mobilize, agitate—be the change agent you need to be.



‘Poor Gays’

“Poor gays!”

No, that’s not a statement of sympathy for a discriminated minority – but rather a subsection of that minority which gets little notice. The intersection of LGBT people and poverty is a largely overlooked reality.

Cameron and Mitchell, Modern Family’s much beloved gay couple, live in a lovely home and not only have the resources to adopt an Asian child, but the time to dote on her. Neil Patrick Harris and his husband in real life, David Burtka, have two adorable twins, and presumably the resources to hire nannies to watch the children while they pursue their careers. Judging from gay couples in the media, one might be tempted into believing that LGBT people are all thriving and reasonably affluent — not to mention overwhelmingly male and white. Nothing could be further from the truth.

An extraordinary report, New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community, by M.V. Lee Badgett, Laura Durso and Alyssa Schneebaum from the Williams Institute (UCLA School of Law), presents a much more complete and accurate view of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people and families than the one that resides in most people’s minds.

The authors note that in reality same-sex couples are more vulnerable to poverty than married couples who are different-sex. Children of same-sex couples fare even worse—they are almost twice as likely to be poor than their peers in different-sex couple households. The most vulnerable of all are African-American children in gay male households—they have a poverty rate of more than 52 percent—higher than any children in any other household type. Children living with lesbian couples are also struggling with a poverty rate of nearly 38 percent—this compared to a national child poverty rate of approximately 20 percent (also atrocious).

The report authors point to some of the reasons so many LGB families are living on the brink, including, “susceptibility to employment discrimination, higher rates of being uninsured and a lack of access to various tax and other financial benefits via exclusion from the right to marry.”

The numbers of LGB parents raising children (biological, adopted and step-children) is not small—and they are not mostly from coastal metropolitan centers no matter what pop culture and the media might lead you to believe. In fact, the states with the largest concentrations of LGB couples raising children—between 22-26 percent of all LGB couples in these states—are Mississippi, Wyoming, Alaska, Idaho and Montana.

It is time we recognize how the interlocking oppressions of race and gender affect our LGBT community

Yet most of these states do not currently have marriage equality and its attendant benefits for married couples and their children. In every state except for Florida, Maine and the District of Columbia, between 15-22 percent of LGB couples are raising children. So this is clearly not just an urban phenomenon. Indeed, as reported in the New York Times, “the data show, child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other region of the country… Gay couples in Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are more likely to be raising children than their counterparts on the West Coast, in New York and in New England.”

It is very difficult to separate the effects of being LGBT and poor from the additional factors of race and gender. All of these factors come together in a perfect storm which increases the likelihood of poverty among LGBT families raising children.

In Race/Ethnicity, Gender and Socioeconomic Wellbeing of Individuals in Same-sex Couples, report co-authors Bianca Wilson and Angeliki Kastanis found that people of color involved in same-sex relationships are more likely to have kids compared to whites in same-sex couples. In fact, 1 of every 3 individuals in same-sex couples raising children is a person of color. Further, while all couples with children “generally fare worse with regards to educational attainment, insurance coverage and median income”—kids are expensive!—“this is especially true for individuals in same-sex couples.”

“These data further indicate the need for public policies that aim to support families with children in achieving educational and economic goals in ways that simultaneously support racial/ethnic and sexual orientation equity,” said Wilson.

There are several ways in which Congress could help remedy this situation. States could pair Medicaid expansion (23 states currently do not have it) with a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10. Congress could expand and strengthen both the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). Poor LGBT people would especially benefit from legislated protections and non-discrimination policies in the workplace.

It is time we stop thinking of the LGBT community as mostly white, affluent, gay males, and begin to recognize how the interlocking oppressions of race and gender affect our LGBT community and conspire to make our poverty rates higher than the norm, especially for those of us raising children. We need a deeper exploration of how sexual orientation, race and gender intersect, if we are to combat the poverty that – perhaps surprisingly – pervades much of our community.