For This ‘Righteous Entrepreneur,’ Fighting Hunger Goes Way Beyond Food

Mixing equal parts business acumen, chutzpah, and heart, DC Central Kitchen’s Mike Curtin serves up a Thanksgiving state of mind all year round.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Ten men clad in chef uniforms sat on a stage, anticipating the diplomas that would mark their graduation from culinary school. Some of the men were young, some could have been grandfathers. All were unmistakably proud. One fought back tears.

The event was held at Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter in the nation’s capital, where, at some point, each of the graduates had come seeking help. What they found was a not just a hot meal to refuel their bodies, but an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

Presiding over the ceremony was Mike Curtin. A former restauranteur and self-professed Dead Head, Curtin runs DC Central Kitchen, a pioneering organization whose wide-ranging food programs are directed at combatting the city’s crushing rate of poverty—and have inspired dozens of similar projects in other cities.

“The culinary job training program is the heart and soul of what we do,” Curtin says. But students don’t typically just walk through the door. “We recruit in prison,” he says, as well as in the 80-plus area shelters and halfway houses where DC Central Kitchen serves some of the 13,000 meals it prepares each day.

After a stint as chief operating officer, Curtin became DC Central Kitchen’s CEO in 2007. Since then, Curtin has continued to shift the conversation around hunger by developing and growing countless groundbreaking initiatives—from preparing locally-sourced nutritious lunches for school children to finding a way to stock fresh fruits and vegetables in neighbourhoods where liquor stores far outnumber supermarkets.

As for that class of graduates? Every single one of them now has a job.

National Geographic spoke to Curtin about DCCK’s ethos: Food alone will never end hunger.

How did DC Central Kitchen evolve?

DC Central Kitchen was founded in 1989 by a young nightclub manager named Robert Egger. Robert, who moved to Los Angeles in 2012 to launch a nonprofit modelled after DC Central Kitchen, was frustrated by his volunteer experiences. He came to realize that for decades in our country we’d essentially been handing out food to hungry people, with the idea that if they’re fed then they won’t be hungry. But he saw the same people coming back night after night, week after week, month after month. Now we recognize that those programs are a piece of the puzzle, but not the answer. Hunger is a symptom of the underlying poverty that exists, as are incarceration, violence on the streets, addiction, abuse, inequity in hiring, homelessness, and unemployment. So the kitchen is focused on three things: Creating opportunities for meaningful careers, expanding healthy food access, and testing innovative solutions to systemic problems. And you could say a systemic problem is that too many people believe that giving away free food will end hunger.

Led by instructor Anand Shantam, students from Central Union Mission Class 9 dance their way to the stage at a graduation ceremony for DC Central Kitchen's culinary training program on September 1. Each of the ten graduates now has a job in the culinary arts. About 1,600 have completed the program, which has been replicated by dozens of other organizations across the country. - PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK THIESSEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Delante Sanders enjoys a moment with fellow graduates. At the event, culinary instructor Terrell Danley (not pictured) presented four awards, given in a spirit of good humour and camaraderie, for team MVP, most improved, overcoming adversity, and “sunshine.” - PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK THIESSEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

You say you’re a Righteous Entrepreneur. What is that?

Several years ago, a reporter was interviewing our founder, Robert, and wasn’t sure how to identify him. Nonprofit owner? Businessman? Something in between? Robert thought for a moment. ‘I’m a Righteous Entrepreneur,’ he said. ‘That’s what I am. Call me that.’ We look at Righteous Entrepreneurs as doing something righteous that is also smart. It feels good because it actually solves a problem.

We came up with eight rules. The first is: It’s OK to be a bit antisocial in pursuit of your mission.

We exemplified that rule in 2006 when Robert and I went on a hunger strike. The city told us that the meals we were providing for the shelters weren’t good enough. They wanted more protein, more fruits and vegetables, more variety. They were right, and I wasn’t terribly pleased with the quality either, but the fact of the matter is that 90 percent of the food we were using was donated. The District of Columbia wasn’t paying a penny toward the production of these meals, so we asked the city to pay for a portion. After months of discussion, the city agreed, but endless bureaucracy ensued, and we weren’t getting the money. We said, Pay us, or we’re not going to deliver meals to the shelters. And then Robert and I decided that, as long as we weren’t delivering meals, out of respect for the men and women in those shelters, we wouldn’t eat either. And so began what would become an eight-day hunger strike.

It worked. And immediately we were able to start buying food and making better quality meals. To me that’s being a little antisocial in pursuit of your mission. We don’t look to do this, we don’t enjoy this, but we have to be bold enough to stand up and say, Hey, pay attention. This is important.

You apply an entrepreneurial approach to your mission. Why is this intersection essential?

We know we’re not going to save the world, or everyone in it. But we know we can do better, and we focus on doing a little better every day—what we call relentless incrementalism. And we happen to get there by looking at this as a business.

We have 177 people on staff. We all expect to get paid every two weeks, and if we aren’t really smart about managing every single penny, that’s not going to happen. We have trucks that need gas, people who need uniforms. We have electricity, computers, chairs. We don’t get that for free just because we’re doing good work. So, sure, we’re a business in that regard.

But if businesses were so good at everything, there wouldn’t be a need for nonprofits or social enterprises in the first place because everyone would be taken care of, everyone would have a seat at the table, everyone would have a job, everyone would be getting good pay.

Ultimately our work is to try to get businesses to think and act a little more like nonprofits and social enterprises. This is not to say one is right or wrong or better than the other. But we want, as a rule, for businesses to value more of those unseen bottom lines.

We’ve heard that a Grateful Dead song inspires your work.

The line I love from “St. Stephen” is: Did he doubt or did he try, answers aplenty in the by and by, talk about your plenty, talk about your ills, one man gathers what another man spills.

One man gathers what another man spills: This is what the kitchen is all about. We find value in taking what’s been pushed to the side, whether that’s food, or people, or equipment that’s not being used. We take food from restaurants that wasn’t being used, train men and women who are being thrown away, much like that food, put meals into the community, and then give those men and women jobs in the same restaurants that gave us the food in the first place. Did he doubt or did he try, answers aplenty in the by and by: We want to take things on that people say are too hard, that can’t be done. It’s easy to doubt, to say let someone else do it. Our job is to try.

Mike Pappas and Jacci Brown stock the shelves at Economy Market in northeast Washington, D.C., as part of DC Central Kitchen's Healthy Corners initiative. The program targets food deserts by bringing fresh, affordable produce to neighborhoods lacking grocery stores. DC Central Kitchen removes barriers by charging below-market prices and delivering the produce to its 74 participating stores, which in turn sell it at below-market prices to consumers. - PHOTOGRAPH BY REBECCA HALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

PHOTOGRAPH BY REBECCA HALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

DCCK brings fresh produce to food deserts. How do you get more healthful options to these areas?

Healthy Corners is a great example of a time when we didn’t doubt. We accepted a significant challenge head-on, by combining philanthropy and social enterprise. We used some public funding but we also approached it as a business. We went to corner stores and asked, “What’s keeping you from selling fresh fruits and vegetables?” One was getting them delivered, and the other was storage—refrigeration. Most corner stores have it, but they’re selling beer and wine, which in many cases represent their highest profit-margin items, and there’s no way they would replace that with produce. So we gave the store owners nice glass display refrigerators. We branded them and gave out recipe cards. And for the first three weeks we gave them produce for free. Gradually we charged a little bit until we reached wholesale price, but this way, the merchant was able to establish a market without any financial risk.

When we introduced pre-cut produce, it started flying off the shelves. Think about it: It’s a huge hassle, especially with younger children, to cook. Some single parents work multiple jobs and take three buses to pick the kids up from daycare or school. Then they stop by the corner store to get something for them to eat—potato chips or maybe a hot dog. But if you can get something that’s all cut up, ready to go, and pop it in the microwave or a crock pot, that really makes a difference.

Today we have 74 participating corner stores. We distilled our experience in a 200-page manual of dos and don’ts and made it available—an organization in New Orleans just started a program based on our model.

Tell us about the process of creating chefs.

The culinary job training program is the heart and soul of what we do. It’s one of the things that makes us a community kitchen, and not a food bank. This model has been replicated about 80 times across the country, in some form or another. We were pioneers, and we’re willing to help anyone who wants to start one.

I often say that I should make a list of all the things I say now that I never thought I would hear myself say, like we recruit in prison. We go to local jails, and we do video conferencing with a couple federal penitentiaries to talk about the program. We go to the 80 partner organizations where we serve food. Because we’ve been around so long, we have great relationships with other groups that help men and women who are looking for a path to self-sufficiency.

Most of our classes start with roughly 25 students. We graduate around 88 percent, and since we started we’ve graduated about 1,600 people. The sense of accomplishment for a 14-week class is remarkable. I’ve had the pleasure of attending over 70 graduation ceremonies, and at every one, one or more of the students will talk about this being the first thing in their life that they’ve ever finished.

Part of the program is an internship, which can lead to a job, and we offer a guided job search. But this is a training program, not a jobs program. That said, 90 percent are placed in a job at graduation. For those who aren’t, we still work with them post-graduation until they get a job.

We have students all over the city—from Smithsonian museum cafeterias to the White House. [D.C. restauranteur] José Andrés is a friend and supporter of ours and he’s always hiring students too.

DCCK is known for its fundraising cook-offs. What about the lesser known contest for students?

We try to expose students to different experiences, like in any educational setting. And one of those is our student cook-off at the halfway point of the class. Probably the most important part of this experience is not necessarily showing their technical skills, but figuring out how to work with others, including those they don’t get along with. The teams are designed to help students confront those challenges—they’re ultimately going to be working in tight quarters where it’s hot, loud, and tense.

We give them a dish, and they have two days to research recipes and then two hours to create the dish. They have to figure out how to manage it all together. After each team prepares the food, the judges (including high-profile chefs) assess its texture, flavour, and creativity, and award a winner.

Two years ago we had our 100th graduation, and José Andrés, one of our judges, was made an honorary graduate, which brought him to tears. ‘This is the first thing I’ve ever graduated from,’ he said. ‘Today, I am just like you.’ For the students to have that moment with this guy, probably one of the top ten chefs in the world, is pretty freaking cool. Robert [our founder] called that kind of moment a “calculated epiphany.” We want to put people in a place where they can discover something that’s going to mean something to them forever, maybe even change them forever. That’s why the Kitchen is not really about food. It’s about changing the way people think.

What other initiatives have you spearheaded?

One is buying local, which came out of another epiphany moment. This was back in 2007, so “local” wasn’t as big as it is now. I was walking through the kitchen, and I looked at a box of tomatoes and said, Ah, look at these, where did they come from? Well, we found out they came from Belgium. So this product was crushing us from an environmental standpoint as well as an economic one. We started talking to local growers at farmers’ markets and we said, Hey, why don’t we buy your products that are too fat or too skinny or geometrically challenged? All of a sudden we had this amazing amount at our disposal.

In 2008 we started our Healthy School Food operation to provide locally-sourced lunches for low-income kids in D.C. schools. We began with just one school, where we served about 300 meals a day. Now we’re in 14 schools, serving about 7,300 meals a day.

If I looked at my work here, I’d say what has been most valuable has been the dramatic expansion of social enterprise. We’re supporting ourselves by creating jobs, but we’re also creating value all along the supply chain.

How much food do you save from being wasted?

It’s about two or three thousand pounds a day. Last year we broke a million pounds—it goes up to two million if we include the food recovered at our 60-plus Campus Kitchens nationwide. That number could have been a lot higher, but we don’t accept things like processed food or pizza anymore. We’d rather get fewer pounds but better product, like raw protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

We’re coming up on Thanksgiving, often a time of excess. How does DCCK approach it?

We want to take advantage of the greater awareness that happens during the holidays that hunger exists, but we are careful not to overemphasize Thanksgiving. People are going to be hungry the day after Thanksgiving, in February, in August. People need to eat every day so that they can get a job, or focus on school, or worry about raising their kids. It’s a special time of year, but we don’t want it to be the only time of year that people think about their neighbours who might need a little extra help.

You’ve tackled so many issues. What remains?

The biggest issue we have to overcome in order to eliminate the need for our work—and ultimately we’re in business to put ourselves out of business—is that too many people still, unfortunately, think that if you’re poor, if you’re hungry, it’s your own fault, it’s because you’re lazy.

The American Dream is not a commodity sitting on a shelf waiting for someone to take it. Everyone does not have the same access to it. And until we can accept that reality and talk about how we’re going to make that more accessible, we’re not going to get very far—and we’re going to continue to have the need for DCCK.

So this is what we have to continue to push: People want to work. I’ve been here for 13 years and I’ve never met anyone who said, I would rather sit on my ass in a shelter instead of having a job and my own apartment. There’s no one who doesn’t want to provide their kids with something better.

Are there outliers? Sure. But I’ve seen too many good people who got caught up in bad things because of where they were born. I didn’t ask to be born into my family or to have the opportunities I did. I’m grateful that I had them, but I didn’t earn that. The people I work with now, my colleagues, were doing the best they could in a situation they were given. By recognizing that it exists doesn’t mean that I created it or I have responsibility for it, but I damn sure can admit that it exists. We want more people to understand that that exists. And getting to that point, no matter what we do and how hard we try, is still hard. That’s the toughest hurdle for us to overcome.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Lead image: Mike Curtin runs the pioneering DC Central Kitchen, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., a city battling some of the nation's highest homeless and poverty rates. Under his watch, the organization prepares roughly 3.5 million meals each year for underprivileged people—including 5,000 Thanksgiving dinners—diverts thousands of pounds of food waste each day, and offers job placement help for graduates of its culinary training program. - Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic.

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