”….[T]oo much of what we call ‘charity’ is more about the redemption of the giver than the liberation of the receiver.” ~ Robert Egger
We’re all well aware of the scarring marks that hunger, poverty, and shady pasts can leave on one’s life. The struggle for good nutrition is often linked to the inability to pay for healthy foods and obesity reigns supreme – once a sign of wealth is now a marker for poverty, and many times it boils down to the overall lack of access to such foods. Those looking for a second chance after incarceration and drug addiction are often left without a means of supporting themselves due to preconceived judgments and fears stemming from themselves and their surrounding peers often times leading them back to a life behind bars, the streets, or no life at all. It’s a disastrous cycle. A problem. However, a problem that Robert Egger – the founder of DC Central Kitchen – pioneered to solve as told through the recently launched book “The Food Fighters: DC Central Kitchen’s First Twenty-Five Years on the Front Lines of Poverty” by Alexander Justice Moore.
“Food Fighters” is a book of insight, story telling, inspiration, and ideas and we have five reasons why you should pick up a copy for yourself and do what we did – read it in a day:
There’s a reason why stories have always been passed down from one generation to the next. There’s a reason why there are thousands upon thousands of text books, biographies, and fact-bast histories in the form of movies, books, music, etc. We are meant to learn and grow from the past. Sometimes history serves as a warning of what never to do again. Other times, history is meant to be built upon. So, here’s our question. Do you live in DC? Near DC? Are you from DC? Then this is your community, and your community’s history is important. This is where you have roots and why DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) and “Food Fighters” should be of significance to you. Throughout the past 25 years, Robert Egger, his team, and his successors have completely reshaped what it means to fight hunger and poverty. Policies have changed, practices have changed, the model of non-profit giving has been changed, and most importantly of all, thousands of people’s lives right here in our community have changed for the better thanks to DCCK. “Robert Egger has never once referred to DC Central Kitchen as ‘a feeding organization’…’We’re an empowerment organization.’”
From a modest beginning Egger grew DCCK from a small food recovery mission into a powerhouse of community change eventually growing to serve 2,600 children daily in their Healthy School Food program, providing healthy affordable food in DC food desserts through their Healthy Corners program, recovering 737,564 pounds of food that would have otherwise been wasted thanks to their Food Recovery program, delivering 1.73 million meals to at-risk women, men, children and families through their Meal Distribution program, referring 2,570 homeless people to housing, health care, and job resources with their First Helping mobile street outreach program, and training 85 students through their Culinary Job Training program…in 2013 ALONE. That doesn’t even include the 280,700 meals that were provided across the US last year from The Campus Kitchen Project. History has been made and is being made. The story of DCCK is one to learn from, one to embrace, and one to tell. This is the history of your community.
Educate Yourself & Others
DCCK took on one steep learning curve after another throughout the last 25 years and this wisdom has been imparted through “Food Fighters”. Sure, we love doing what we can when we think of it. Perhaps 25 cents here or there to someone with a paper cup on the street, or a bag of groceries to the local food bank. We get the good feelz when we’ve done something we perceive as helping someone else, and most of the time our generosity doesn’t extend past the holiday seasons. But, what good does donating a frozen turkey or a couple cans of food really do? As Egger put it, ”There is no dignity in free food.”
There is a cycle that needs to be broken. Little or no education (or opportunities for education) often lead to poverty. Poverty can lead to poor eating habits (often based on affordability). Poor eating habits lead to health issues, obese children and adults, and stress that can ruin a family. Throw in poverty leading to crime which leads to jail and we’ve got a mess. Egger wondered how many people who receive meals from food charities could actually work if given the chance. A tough question to ask as it seems judgmental. But the answer Egger landed on was invaluable. Give people their dignity back by empowering them with education, knowledge, and skills.
“Filling stomachs was fine, but changing lives was what mattered. Egger did not just want to fight hunger. He was looking to satisfy a deeper hunger among his clients, one that could only be filled by the self-confidence, self-worth, and self-sufficiency that comes with a real job.” ~ The Food Fighters
DCCK doesn’t just serve as a way to educate students through healthy eating, ex-convicts through job training, providing resources for those needing help beyond hunger, DCCK imparts valuable lessons to everyone who steps through their doors. The volunteers learn to work side by side with the people who were once thought to be dangerous, and uneducated. Volunteers are taught to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Humility, pride in one’s work, and knowledge of how to help break the cycle of poverty and hunger, and the importance of food education. Children who grew up in poverty are likely to know nothing of nutrition, where their food comes from, and how to make good choices. Obesity in the poor isn’t because of laziness. It comes down to not knowing any better or having access to better.
The Bigger Picture
There are several “bigger pictures” to be found in “Food Fighters”, ranging from the ripple effects from the empowerment obtained through the CJT program to the healthy eating habits learned in the school’s healthy food programs. One ripple of great significance is the monetary return DC sees from educating ex-offenders and keeping them out of the prison system.
“Keeping these men and women in kitchens instead of prisons created a windfall for the District of Columbia. Marianne Ali and her staff calculated that just one entering class of culinary students in 2012 had cost DC $6.9 million in incarceration, post-release supervision, supportive housing, and rehabilitation costs in before their first day at DCCK. By training and placing each year’s cohort of ex-offenders, DCCK swaps out nearly $2 million in annual prison expenses for more than $200,000 in new payroll taxes. With program expenses of less than $10,000 per student, every dollar spent on the Kitchen’s job training program returns upwards of $3.50 to Washington, DC each year.” ~ The Food Fighters
Egger took his DCCK model on the road to teach whomever would listen about his program, and started the association “Food Chain” launching almost 60 community kitchens across the US. Unfortunately it was this wide spread thinking of what role these community kitchens were supposed to play that lead to the overall demise. “Egger’s vision of a national network of community kitchens had been quashed by a generation of hunger-fighting professionals who had a certain view of the way things were done: food banks handed out food, hungry people at the food, and they all waited for a better economy that would somehow provide good jobs for everybody.” This type of thinking is what is detrimental to actually working to solve a problem.
“Food Fighters” also addresses the larger scale issues within the non-profit sector that limit results and just Band-Aid the problems each organization tries to address. Much of the problems stemming from a festering sense of competition and distrust separating organizations and causes that needed to be united. Because non-profits are mandated to stay out of politics, decisions made leave them scrambling to pick up the pieces. For-profit and non-profit need to function together. Value must be seen within the non-profit sector within politics and capitalism. And interestingly enough, Egger posited “support businesses or products that show the link between profit and purpose. The way you spend your money – the power of capitalism – can ultimately decrease the need for charity in the first place.” All of this originally addressed in Egger’s book, “Begging for Change.
We don’t expect everyone who reads this book to immediately jump into non-profit work (like the infamous Jose Andres and his founding of World Central Kitchen due to his work with and inspiration from Egger and DCCK), solving global problems, or even begin volunteering on a regular basis. Instead, we hope this book will inspire you to look beyond your nose and see what can be done. A feel good story of amazing proportions, this book shows one good idea can lead to amazing results – all it takes is a vision and a little drive. The story is one of perserverance. Not everything in life will come easily. There will be walls and blockades, but with endurance and a little bit of creative thinking, these walls are scalable. This story provides life lessons that can be applied in personal struggles, professional struggles – whether for-profit or non-profit, and is an example of how even the “little guys” can do big things. The story shows us that where we plan to take our lives is not always where we’re meant to be. Adaptation, second chances, selflessness are all take away lessons from “The Food Fighters”.
Profits of “The Food Fighters” books purchased at DCCK events or at the main Kitchen on 2nd street, or at the Nutrition Lab in NE DC will be given to DCCK. Profits of books purchased independently or online (you can find it on Amazon and Amazon Kindle) will support first time author, and co-Mainer (we love hearing about other Mainers doing great things) Alexander Justice Moore who took on this project independently, and is a full time employee of DCCK.
*Photo Credit: Ezra Gregg
Left to Right: Alexander Justice Moore (DCCK Chief Development Officer & Author), Robert Egger (DCCK Founder), Michael Curtin, Jr. (DCCK CEO)
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