Ambitious Organization Uses Leftovers to Feed the Hungry

January 2, 2013 11:00 PM
Ambitious Organization Uses Leftovers to Feed the Hungry

DC Central Kitchen converts imperfect produce into meals for the hungry

Every day, DC Central Kitchen sends refrigerated trucks to collect leftover food from hotels, restaurants and farms. Staff then turn that food into 5,000 healthy meals served up at homeless shelters, rehabilitation clincs and schools. It's food, says director of nutrition and community outreach Lindsey Palmer, that would otherwise get thrown in the garbage.

The holiday season seems like an appropriate time to remember that Americans waste enough food each year to feed all the hungry people in the country. In fact, the world could feed all its hungry people if so much food wasn't lost through poor production, distribution and storage practices, according to a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Twenty-three years ago, DC Central Kitchen decided to do something about the problem, says Palmer, who spoke at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C. The organization began collecting wasted food from businesses and turning it into stews, salads and other nutritious meals to feed the hungry. Later, it began paying farmers for imperfect fruits and vegetables that they couldn't sell.

But that's only half the organization's mission. DC Central Kitchen also takes some of the same needy people it serves and teaches them how to cook in a culinary institute.

"It's not enough just to feed people," Palmer says. "You need to teach them to be self-sufficient so that they can give back to the community. Every 14 weeks, we take 25 men and women, most of them formerly incarcerated, or recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, or going through some poverty issues, and teach them how to become chefs."

The culinary institute in turn spawned a catering program that employs graduates. Revenue is put back into the organization. And the revenue from catering helped the organization start a pilot program for supplying fresh food to D.C. public schools. DC Central Kitchen serves up 5,000 free meals a day -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- to needy kids.

A year ago, the $10 million nonprofit launched a healthy corner store initiative, supplying neighborhood corner stores with produce. The idea, Palmer says, is to "close the loop." For example, school children might enjoy brussels sprouts at school and tell their parents, who can then buy the produce at the corner grocery.

Robert Egger, who founded the organization in 1989 with a grant, recently announced his intention to take the show on the road, back to his hometown of Los Angeles. LA Kitchen, slated to open next year, will conduct job training and meal preperation programs similar to the ones in D.C.

But Egger also wants to create a refigerated storehouse for fruits and vegetables that might otherwise go to waste. In a video, Egger notes that Americans throw away a large quantity of the food they produce each year.

"Over half of that is fruits and vegetables," he says. "A huge amount of that food and vegetables never makes it to the farmer's market, never makes it to the grocery store. Why? Because it's cosmetically imperfect, geometrically irregular or too ripe."

The LA Kitchen, he says, will focus on those fruits and vegetables to produce vegetarian and vegan meals each day. And it will "stablize" millions of pounds of food each year that other nonprofits and agencies can use without fear of it going bad. Check out this video tour of the DC Central Kitchen with Egger.

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