Curtin speaks on fighting food insecurity and poverty

On Friday, Michael Curtin ’86 delivered the lecture “Fighting Food Insecurity and Poverty in America” in Paresky Auditorium.
On Friday, Michael Curtin ’86 delivered the lecture “Fighting Food Insecurity and Poverty in America” in Paresky Auditorium. Victoria Chentsova/Contributing Photographer

Michael Curtin ’86 spoke last Friday in Paresky Auditorium, giving a talk entitled, “Fighting Food Insecurity and Poverty in America,” which addressed the history and mission of D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), a community kitchen founded by former nightclub owner Robert Egger.

Before opening DCCK, Egger noticed that community kitchens foster a culture of dependency, with the same people coming back for food day-after-day and year-after-year.  He founded DCCK with the mission of “shortening the line by feeding it.”

“Food isn’t going to end hunger,” Curtin said.

The kitchen is “not a soup kitchen,” according to its website. Instead, DCCK delivers meals to area organizations, including homeless shelters and rehabilitation clinics, and invites recipients to participate in the kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, which prepares “unemployed, underemployed, previously incarcerated persons and homeless adults for careers in the food service industry,” thereby reducing the number of people who need food assistance in the first place.

Curtin disputes the notion that hunger is the fault of the hungry, and instead focuses on providing them with a way out.

The program has been very successful. Graduates have a job placement rate of 90 percent, and the re-incarceration rate among graduates is about two percent, compared to the national rate of about 60 percent.

Not only does the kitchen fight food insecurity and poverty in America, but it is also committed to reducing food waste. The kitchen prepares meals from recovered leftover food, which is supplemented with extra ingredients to create balanced meals. The kitchen employs innovative methods with substantial economic and environmental benefits.

Around 2006, Curtin made the switch from buying imported produce to buying “unsellable” produce from local farmers, in other words, produce deemed “too ugly” to sell. This change helped to reduce food waste, lowering the kitchen’s costs and benefiting the local economy.

Food recovery is not a new concept to the College. Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus (WRAPS) is a joint effort by students, dining services and the Center for Learning in Action to repurpose surplus dining hall food to feed community members in need. Curtin praised the initiative, and many of the people involved with WRAPS were present at the talk, including student leaders, dining service staff members and representatives from local organizational partners such as Mohawk Forest, Berkshire Food Project and Hoosac Harvest.

DCCK has also inspired an initiative at educational institutions across the country, the “Campus Kitchens Project.” The program partners with high schools and colleges to recover food waste and package meals that are delivered to the community. Many of the programs also manage job training and education programs, and some have even started their own farmer’s markets.

Eleanor Lustig ’18, a student leader of WRAPS who helped organize the lecture and met with Curtin, commented on the knowledge the College can acquire from the kitchen.

“The ideologies behind WRAPS and DCCK are very similar, and so the Campus Kitchen model is a great place to look for inspiration,” Lustig said. “It demonstrates how a program like WRAPS can better work within a community beyond the school by sourcing food from local farmers and reaching out to the community through education projects. WRAPS hopes to improve its larger community engagement through working with other student groups and reaching out to a larger Berkshire community.”

Curtin gives credit for much of the kitchen’s success and innovation to the application of business-like thinking and charity. Such thinking led DCCK to negotiate with the government for better funding and better recognition, and to find more sustainable sources of food. Charities and businesses alike, he said, need to break out of old ways of thinking in order to create substantial, meaningful change.

The lecture concluded with an introduction of people in the area who are working to fight food insecurity in Berkshire County, all of whom can be resources to the college students interested in helping the cause.

In closing, Curtin gave advice to students interested in the cause: “The easiest word in the English language is ‘no.’”