Drawing a (Lunch) Line in the Sand

In a time when off-shoring and outsourcing are household words discussed around dinner tables by struggling families, smart investments in local economies are essential. Yes, these sorts of investments can be made by socially responsible businesses or proactive public sector agencies. But they can also be made by entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations like DC Central Kitchen.

When the economy bottomed out, we knew we needed to generate more of our revenue and reduce our reliance on private foundations whose portfolios had been battered in the market crash. We also knew that the unemployed, at-risk men and women we trained for culinary careers as part of our hunger-fighting mission were going to face a tougher time than ever finding work.

We decided to go ‘all-in’ on the idea of social enterprise, and successfully bid on a multi-million dollar food service contract with the District of Columbia’s public school system. Not only were we charged with making more meals, but with finding a way to break new ground in the healthy school food movement.

Today, thanks to our contract with DC Public Schools, we’re producing nearly 5,000 healthy, locally-sourced, scratch-cooked meals each day. We’re busting through the nutritional barriers that exist in economically marginalized neighborhoods and providing affordable and healthy options that don’t require kids to radically change what they like to eat.

Because we’re a nonprofit, we take a holistic approach to promoting good health through school food, offering cooking demos, taste tests, student surveys, community outreach, and nutritional education through our mobile Truck Farm exhibit. All of these efforts add value to our school partnerships, increase student participation, and reinforce healthy eating beyond the cafeteria.

In an effort to maximize the economic benefits of our work, we’re investing locally. In 2012, we used more local product than ever before, investing $154,000 in local farmers and bringing 211,500 pounds of local items to our school meals.

To help fuel our social enterprise activities, we’ve hired two dozen of our own culinary graduates at living wages with full benefits. We’re empowering our graduates to create positive change in their community while earning a decent living for their families.

This is where we draw the line. We could make these meals more cheaply if we hired people at substandard wages. We could save money if we used low-quality ingredients. And we could squeeze our staff harder if we denied them health care or paid time off. But those tactics reflect a short-sighted understanding of what it takes to build a functioning economy. At DC Central Kitchen, we engineer and implement lasting solutions.

There are added costs to substandard wages, and those costs are passed on to taxpayers of all brackets. Many of DC’s food insecure households are home to working adults who do not make enough to cover their families’ costs. These individuals often lack health insurance and their children depend on subsidized school meals to fend off hunger. And we could import cheaper ingredients from overseas, but by buying locally, we reduce our ecological footprint while sustaining area farmers. We’re committed to creating a sustainable livelihood for every person that works for and with us – and providing meaningful work that will revitalize this community.

With our approach, we’re taking on a host of social, economic, and public health-related issues – joblessness, poverty, obesity, and inequitable food access – all in one integrated effort. These investments are less costly up-front than you might think, and their payoff will only grow in the years to come.

Whether it be wasted food or wasted minds, the missed opportunities to make a local economic impact are right in front of us. Through our Healthy School Food program, DC Central Kitchen is taking those wasted opportunities and turning them into winning solutions to fight poor health and create good jobs, laying the groundwork for a sturdy, stable, and sustainable economy.

You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.

Learn more about DC Central Kitchen. Visit our website at www.dccentralkitchen.org.

Follow DC Central Kitchen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dcck

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