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)?
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.
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.
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.