Curtin brings the Kitchen to the classroom

“When I was at Williams, I never imagined that my dream job would be working in the basement of one of the largest homeless shelters in the country,” said Michael Curtin ’86, CEO of the Washington, D.C. Central Kitchen. As part of the last week’s Spring into Service activities, Curtin gave a small conversation-style lecture in Griffin Hall on Thursday night.

Curtin’s organization, D.C. Central Kitchen (also known as “The Kitchen”) uses surplus food to prepare nutritious meals for social service agencies, as well as trains and employs homeless men and women to work in the food service industry. “The Kitchen is based on a simple premise: waste is wrong,” Curtin said.

Curtin noted that in the United States, 25 percent of produced food is discarded, and much of that never leaves the farm. Despite this large surplus of available food, Americans still face hunger every day. “We’re never going to feed our way out of hunger,” Curtin said. “Opportunities, jobs, minimum wage, prisons, healthcare, day care – [these issues] are at the crux of what hunger really is.”

When the Central Kitchen opened in 1989, its unique tradition – cooking with donated food and training and hiring the homeless – was met with skepticism. Twenty-one years later, the Kitchen has assuaged all doubts. Each day, the Kitchen prepares over 4500 meals and has over 700 graduates from its 12-week program, which trains previously homeless or incarcerated people to gain skills both in personal empowerment and in the food service industry.

“We’re not a feeding organization,” Curtin said. “We’re an empowerment organization … I see people’s lives change in front of me. We can track the 12 weeks [of training] by how people look at you, how they talk, how they walk.”

Curtin highlighted three unique elements responsible for the Kitchen’s success. First, he and the Kitchen’s staff hold service agencies responsible. Each organization that partners with the Kitchen to receive meals signs a contract promising to use the saved money towards bettering their own programs. If organizations do not show improvement, the Kitchen retracts those meals and gives them to another agency.

Second, the Kitchen hires for entry level positions only from within its graduated classes. Curtin referred to these workers as “empowerment billboards” whose background and clear ability to overcome obstacles give them the power to inspire current students. “[For] me, a white Williams graduate, it’s a tough sell, but a [staff member] out of prison can say to [current students], ‘It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it,’” Curtin said.

Third, over 11,000 volunteers work in the Kitchen each year. Curtin noted that although the Kitchen probably does not need so much help to function, the perspective change the volunteers experience is an important and rewarding process. “[Volunteers] leave saying, ‘I just spent three hours with a man convicted of manslaughter, and he had a knife [to chop food], but we had a great conversation about music,’” Curtin said. He underscored that the difference between people who end up in jail and people who refrain from crime is not biological or intrinsic, but rather due to luck or circumstance. “These folks never had opportunities or family support, and we want volunteers to understand that,” he said.

Curtin said that in addition to distributing meals to non-profits and training the homeless in culinary jobs, the Kitchen provides meals to a local junior high school, where staff members serve as role models to students. The Kitchen also operates a catering company. The staff for these programs is comprised of graduates of the Kitchen’s culinary job training program. “I’ve never had a more dependable staff,” Curtin said. “They understand the value of the job.”

Through all its benevolent endeavors, the Kitchen continues to profit. “We want people to say we’re doing the smart thing, not just the good thing,” Curtin said. He noted that it costs $40,000 of tax money to keep someone in prison for a year, but only $10,000 to empower him through job training. Once he becomes employed, he will pay taxes and the process “ultimately saves [America] a ton of money,” Curtin said.

One innovative element of the Kitchen’s business plan involves buying local produce that, for aesthetic reasons, farmers cannot sell. For example, Curtin noted that because baking recipes usually call for large eggs, small and medium sized eggs often go to waste. Curtin said one farm throws out seven million eggs each year – despite the fact that the eggs are fresh, free range, local and organic – because they are not quite the right size.

The Kitchen now purchases this surplus to make their meals and to sell ingredients to restaurants. Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn buys ingredients for his pizza parlor from the Kitchen. “Spike has to buy sauce anyway, so [buying from us] is his philanthropy,” Curtin said. “What we want people to see, by doing, is that your business, whatever it is you do when you get out of [college], can be your philanthropy.” Despite this focus on business, the Kitchen’s primary goal is to serve people in need. “I wouldn’t be running this business if social good wasn’t the bottom line,” Curtin said.

Curtin concluded by describing a new program called Campus Kitchens, in which volunteers from colleges around the country provide and distribute meals. He expressed interest in establishing a program at the College and plans to discuss potential plans with interested students and faculty.

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