Change is what drives Robert Egger. For nearly 30 years, he’s spearheaded efforts to find smarter ways to help the homeless and smarter ways to run nonprofits. It isn’t exactly in line with his other dream—of changing the nightclub industry, but sometimes life takes you on unexpected journeys.

Egger took that first step down the path less travelled when, out of a sense of obligation, he joined his wife and members of their church on their nightly “grate patrol.” There, they handed out food to Washington, DC’s homeless: the men and women who made their homes on the heat grates outside the city’s buildings of power. He ended the night with a sense of fulfillment from having done some good, but that feeling paled next to the questions that were circling in his mind. What were these good-hearted folks really doing to change the situation for any of their unlucky brethren on the street? And weren’t at least some of the homeless recipients willing and able to help in the food’s preparation? Didn’t feeding and training go hand in hand?

The questions dogged Egger for the next six months as he worked to convince enough people of the value of his radical plan—recovering surplus food and repurposing it for those in need, and jobs training that might take some of the homeless off the streets. He also needed the time to find a serviceable kitchen space. From his years in the nightclub business, Eggers understands theatrics and how to garner press attention. He timed DC Central Kitchen’s coming-out to coincide with the presidential inauguration of George H. W. Bush on January 20, 1989. In the wee hours of the morning Egger and his team trailed the departing revelers, visiting the then-quiet kitchens at the end of each inaugural ball to glean the leftovers for use in his own industrial kitchen. The publicity they generated helped launch the program.

Egger then set about accomplishing the next phase of his plan: a culinary job-training program. Now, 25 years later, DCCK has graduated more than 1,300 students. In 2013, the program graduated 85 students, with a 90% job placement rate upon graduation and an 86% job retention rate after six months of employment.

Using food as its medium, DCCK is building partnerships in the community that support individuals on their path to self-sufficiency. Fresh Start, DCCK’s social enterprise catering business, was created in 1996 to provide much-needed revenue for various Kitchen programs; incidentally it provides job placement for some of the training program’s graduates. DC Central Kitchen’s social enterprise has expanded to include producing contract meals, preparing locally sourced, scratch-cooked school meals at 10 DC schools, and delivering healthy produce and snacks at 60 corner stores in DC’s food deserts. The program at schools and corner stores also include nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and community outreach. Together, DC Central Kitchen’s social enterprise programs generate 65% of the DC Central Kitchen’s operating budget, while helping DCCK expand its mission and hire graduates of its Culinary Job Training Program. Approximately 40% of DC Central Kitchen’s staff are graduates who are hired at living wages with full benefits. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton summed it up when she remarked, “Instead of handouts, you offer the hand of opportunity. Instead of pity, you offer jobs.”

As part of DCCK’s food recovery efforts, the Kitchen collects and “re-prepares” more than 700,000 pounds of food each year: it’s a great recycling mechanism. Every single day of the year, they use this food to prepare more than 5,000 meals, which are distributed to various community nonprofit programs in Washington, DC. To date, the organization has served 27 million meals. They accomplish it all as part of a $12 million annual budget, and in the process they have saved the city tens of millions of dollars. It’s no wonder that DCCK’s model has been replicated in more than 60 cities across the country.

This effort is further amplified in college and university campuses. Thirty-four colleges and a handful of high schools are now part of the Campus Kitchen Project, which marries the energy of students wanting to create change with the already operational kitchens on their campuses. Leadership training and service experience are the rewards for the students who take complete charge of the operation. The elements of DCCK’s success (food recovery, meal distribution, job training and nutrition education) become the foundation for a community effort that joins volunteers of all ages and helps support local economies. It has also become part of the curriculum in 140 college-level classes. Egger believes the Campus Kitchen Project will also serve as an incubator of new ideas as it moves forward.

“It’s not about food,” remarked Egger. “It’s about wage, it’s about prisons, it’s about health care. It’s about a million things.” To that end, students in the Culinary Job Training Program receive much more than food preparation training. They also receive training in computer literacy, resume writing, interviewing, coping strategies, and resolving conflicts.

Another DCCK program called Healthy Returns brings healthy food to agencies serving low-income children and at-risk young people. Healthy Returns partners with approximately 40 agencies, serving more than 180,000 meals each year. Instead of having to pay for food, the participating agencies can use the funds to purchase supplies and other building blocks for a stronger curriculum.

In 2013, Egger moved west to found L.A. Kitchen. Like DCCK, the organization recovers fresh produce for use in a culinary arts job training program aimed as young men and women aging out of foster care as well as older citizens trying to get a foothold following incarceration. L.A. Kitchen will move into its brand new kitchen in 2015.

Over the years, Egger has become a leader in the national nonprofit community—largely because he stirs things up and refuses to accept the status quo and because he believes there’s much to be gained by working together. He’s instigated or been involved in a number of national initiatives including the 2006 Nonprofit Congress, the Primary Project, which worked to inform presidential candidates of the nonprofit industry’s potential, Foodchain, and Kitchens INC. He founded and directs CForward, which is working to elevate the profile of the nonprofit sector on the national political landscape. He has also served as interim director of the United Way in DC and chair of the DC Mayor’s Commission on Nutrition, and he helped start the city’s homeless newspaper, Street Sense.

Egger blogs, editorializes, and writes to get his views across. In a recent Financial Times editorial, he asked readers to “Imagine if there was a way to measure and then reward strategic investments in non-profits in the form of an annual and potentially growing tax deduction based on the same rate of return principle as the dividend. Imagine how that would revolutionize the productivity of nonprofits, as well as create an incentive for individuals to seek out and support some of the most dynamic social and economic stimulators in their communities.” He suggested similar steps in his 2002 book, Begging for Change.

Bold ideas and change are what matter to Egger. Whether it’s a new concept for a better nightclub or the kind of change that lifts people out of poverty, you can be sure Robert Egger will be leading the charge.ounder

Robert Egger is a recipient of the Elfenworks Foundation In Harmony With Hope award, presented on October 15, 2009.

About DC Central Kitchen
DC Central Kitchen uses food as a vehicle for change: clients become employed cooks through the Kitchen’s Culinary Jobs Training Program; college students learn about service and business in the Campus Kitchen Project; and thousands of Washington, DC’s hungry are fed as more than hundreds of thousands of pounds of food are recycled every year. The Kitchen additionally provides street outreach and nutrition education for at-risk kids. Through job training, meal distribution, and supporting local food systems, DC Central Kitchen is building long-term solutions to the interconnected problems of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. The Kitchen is founded on the premise that when fighting poverty, one must fight to win by using every resource available: “Be it food, money, or people, we hate to see wasted potential.” FContact: www.dccentralkitchen.org ~ 425 2nd Street Northwest / Washington, DC 20001-2003, (202) 234-0707 ~ http://www.dccentralkitchen.org/contact.php

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