Food + Data = Great Opportunities

This article was published in Business Horizon Quarterly, Issue #12.

It is available via PDF here.


By Rich Cooper and Justin Hienz

On a muggy July afternoon in downtown Washington, DC, families and friends gathered at an auditorium at the Navy Memorial and Heritage Center for a ceremony celebrating the graduation of a cohort of aspiring chefs. Camera lights flashed as people in the crowd snapped photos, and there was a consistent murmur of thankfulness, hope, and pride in the audience. “God bless you,” voices said; “I feel blessed,” said others.

Clad in white chef’s coats, graduates of the DC Central Kitchen Training Program gathered just out of sight in a doorway at the top of the auditorium. You would be forgiven for assuming these chefs would march to the stage to Edward Elgar’s oft-played graduation tune, “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.” This was not your usual graduation. Instead, Kelly Price’s “It’s My Time” erupted from speakers, and the line of chefs began a two-step shuffle dance down the side aisle.

It's my time to rise

It's my time to shine

It's my time to live

It's my time to fly


The crowd clapped to the rhythm, and their elation was contagious. The message was, in a word, empowerment, and that’s what DC Central Kitchen is all about. CEO Michael Curtin said to the crowd, “What we do is business. It’s not simply charity or good will. It’s just good business, and the product we sell is empowerment.”

DC Central Kitchen is a unique blend of non-profit and social enterprise. Their facility in the basement of a temporary emergency housing building nestled between the White House and the Capitol Building has all the sights and smells of a professional kitchen. It is the controlled chaos of any culinary operation, with dozens of chefs, students, and volunteers moving fast to cook and prepare the 5,000 meals delivered every day to schools, homeless shelters, transitional homes, and other organizations around the city.

In one room, a master chef coached a training program participant in how to make a sauce (it needed more salt). In another room, a team of grade school student volunteers tore through a mountain of bread to create the crumbs and stuffing for any number of dishes. Stacked boxes of produce; hot grills and the “chop-chop” of knives on a prep table; and the constant “behind!” barked as people squeezed past one another in the cramped quarters.

“We did not set out just to feed people,” Curtin said. “We are not a feeding organization. We are an empowerment organization. We use food to provide people with the opportunity to make a change in their lives and in our community.”

How do they do it? In Curtin’s words, through “relentless incrimentalism.” Step by step, he, his predecessor and DC Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger, a team of hyper-focused professionals, and legions of volunteers have created a multi-pronged approach to addressing core social challenges that are (tragically) not unique to the nation’s capital.

Each piece of this virtuous endeavor works together towards the core mission of helping people help themselves. But as any entrepreneur will attest, good ideas are not sufficient to grow an enterprise. It takes facts, strategy, and tireless dedication—which is the very architecture of how DC Central Kitchen has grown from a good local idea into a global model for how to address a range of social issues, hunger being but one of them.


From These Humble Beginnings

The idea that launched DC Central Kitchen in 1989 was simple: restaurants, supermarkets, and other kitchens have food left over at the end of the day that cannot be sold but still has great nutritional value. Founder Robert Egger, at the time a young night club owner, realized that this unsellable food could be prepared for the many organizations struggling to feed people in need. So began DC Central Kitchen and its Food Recovery and Distribution program. It consolidated the untouched but otherwise wasted food and turned it into meals for people throughout the city.

Yet, the aim was to do more than make better use of available resources. Katherine Eklund, Partnerships and Planning Coordinator, said the goal is to give in a systemic way, “not just to give out food but to help people be able to feed themselves.”

Part of that means helping Washingtonians build skills and experience that can help them land a job, succeed at it, and break the cycle of poverty, homelessness, and hunger. With that idea, DC Central Kitchen began offering on-the-job training (helping prepare the meals for the Recovery and Distribution Program), networking opportunities for participants, self-empowerment sessions with a dedicated life-skills coach, and later, internships.

As Father Gregory Boyle (founder of a highly successful gang intervention program) has said—and as Curtin cited—"nothing stops a bullet like a job." In the case of DC Central Kitchen, this phrase might be amended to: nothing ends chronic hunger, homelessness, and criminal proclivity like marketable skills and hope for the future.

“It was important for us to think about how we go beyond treating symptoms and instead get at root causes,” said Alexander Moore, DC Central Kitchen Chief Development Officer. “Instead of seeing charity as a safety net, how do we see it as a process that structurally guides people towards lives of self-sufficiency?”

Moore, Curtin and others at DC Central Kitchen made the point that there is a real, monetary cost to unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. These issues, which span generations, demand ongoing taxpayer investment, to say nothing of the cost of illicit activities borne of extreme need and a hopeless disposition. Remedying this is not a simple fix. It demands an innovative, holistic approach to not just helping people but amassing the resources necessary to do so and on a perpetually tight budget.

Several years ago, DC Central Kitchen realized some of its produce was being grown thousands of miles away (like in Belgium); it was an inefficient method, and for a group striving to stretch every dollar, it did not make much sense. Instead, there are many small and independent farms in Virginia, Maryland, and elsewhere nearby that can help. Some 40% to 60% of all food grown never leaves a farm, said Curtin. Size, shape, and color impact commercial value, and that which is imperfect is used for seeding or fertilizer, effectively burying money, effort, and the potential for change.

DC Central Kitchen began working with local farmers, ultimately purchasing the available produce. While the price they pay is 40% to 50% less than wholesale value, it is 100% more profit for the farms that would otherwise see all that food go to waste. This is the unique blend of innovation, philanthropy, and good business, thoughtfully pieced together to help multiple stakeholders. It’s good for the farmers, for the jobseekers, for the organizations that receive DC Central Kitchen food, and for society as a whole.

While the food the jobseekers and volunteers prepare is delivered to schools, shelters, and other organizations, there is a larger societal need to offer nutritious options for all communities. In some places in DC, as well as around the country, there is a phenomenon of “food deserts;” that is, geographic areas that do not have immediate access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other core food groups. DC Central Kitchen has wedded its produce buying and food preparation efforts with a focused program to bring fresh food to corner stores in these food deserts. The program, called Healthy Corners, was initially funded with philanthropic grants, but in seeing success (only one of the initial 30 stores dropped out of the program), they transitioned to having stores purchase the fresh produce, creating a new, sustainable revenue stream that can fund more and larger programs for DC Central Kitchen. The program is already in 60 stores in the DC area, with sales growing 45% in May and June.

“The money that we earn is unrestricted, so we can make investments as business people,” said Moore, contrasting earned revenue with donations. “We don’t need to write a grant. We can just do it because it’s smart business. We still measure value, but we do it for ourselves. Having that independence allows us to be much more agile.”

The notion of measuring value is critical, as it is one way DC Central Kitchen is improving and expanding its efforts. That requires, however, a strategic analytical approach based on data.


Data Driving Change

This is a data-driven era, and all organizations have an opportunity to use new technology and a greater capacity to collect and store data to foster innovation and growth. DC Central Kitchen is no exception.

“These aren’t just numbers,” Eklund said. “These are people’s lives. Data helps us ask the right questions on how to improve what we do.”

There are two parts to this. First, data gives DC Central Kitchen a way to measure success and prove effectiveness, showing donors what their dollars have achieved and attracting new interest from other philanthropic giving. Even as DC Central Kitchen generates some of its own budget, grants and donations remain an important part of how the organization is able to strive after its ambitious goals and critical mission. With the economic downturn and ensuing recession, the need for philanthropic funds skyrocketed. Unemployment taxed an already limited number of dollars, forcing all philanthropic endeavors to compete even more aggressively for grants. In the philanthropic world, tracking results is critical to capturing and retaining grants.

“For the last decade, nonprofits have counted outputs,” Moore said. “We operate in a philanthropic cycle where people fund things on an annual basis and want to see an end of year report.”

But DC Central Kitchen is less focused on checking philanthropic boxes than it is on making programs more effective and helping empower people. Thus, the second part of the data equation is that granular, consolidated information is helping DC Central Kitchen make its programs better.

“The plural of anecdote is not data,” Curtin said. “With data, we can see clearly and objectively and admit to ourselves that we’re failing in some ways, and then we use that data to do a better job and have a greater impact.”

For example, looking at the data, DC Central Kitchen realized that there was a trend in the job training program, with some participants dropping out towards the end of the 14-week course. Having realized this, they launched an internship program to keep job training participants engaged and help ease the transition from training into the workplace.

“The more data we collected, the more we understood our role as an inflection point in the arc of people’s lives,” Moore said. “We wanted to invest in understanding what’s going on in the lives of the people we’re serving. Our first evaluation hire was a graduate of our job training program who could develop a rapport with fellow grads to understand what happens after graduation.”

The evaluator calls graduates to see what kinds of successes and challenges they face in the job market. This gives DC Central Kitchen insight into how its efforts can more directly address real-world challenges and help graduates be successful in the long term.


New Challenges and New Solutions

Over its 25 years of operation, DC Central Kitchen has come a long way, and so have its staff, its leaders and of course, its participants; but more work remains. There are substantial, chronic problems that are holding communities back, and as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, there will be new challenges in the near future.

“We are looking at the future of senior meals,” Curtin said. “Dietary specific, fresh, locally sourced and pre-packaged, we want to revolutionize the Meals on Wheels concept.”

Senior hunger has grown dramatically in the last decade. In 2013, 1.1 million households of seniors living alone faced food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is particularly troubling as food insecurity raises the risk of chronic health 

conditions (which not only threatens life and wellbeing but also contributes substantially to the nation’s enormous and unsustainable healthcare costs).

As Moore said, there simply is not enough time (or dollars) to scale up the existing food supply infrastructure to meet the rapidly growing need among America’s aging population. DC Central Kitchen is uniquely positioned to help satisfy this need, adjusting and expanding its programs to continue empowering individuals and building communities.

For example, DC Central Kitchen is applying its innovative approach to a new endeavor, the Campus Kitchens Project. Partnering with high schools, colleges, and universities to share kitchen space, the project relies on volunteerism to bring food (and empowerment) to communities across the country. The idea is to recover extra food from cafeterias and local sources and then leverage existing infrastructure (school kitchens) to reach ever farther into challenged communities. The project is currently in 40 schools in nearly two dozen states, with student volunteers flocking to the opportunity.

"There’s already a school in every community," Moore said. "Students are desperate for service that means something. This is a huge opportunity for a nonprofit that will never need a fundraising effort."

Here again, the DC Central Kitchen model shows its capacity to simultaneously offer value to multiple stakeholders. The meals prepared at participating schools help people in need (including seniors), and student volunteers gain critical experience in organizing and managing a complex project, to say nothing of the chance to support to their community.

Ultimately, this story is not about DC Central Kitchen. It is an innovative, data-driven, genuinely altruistic group, but the focus isn’t about them. Indeed, they would like to put themselves out of business, though such a prospect remains elusive, for now.

“I do this because I’m selfish,” Curtin said. “While we [as a country] have a lot to be thankful for, we are looking at a dim future. I don’t want my kids to grow up in a country of haves and have-nots. I want to do everything I can to create a more equitable future for all of us.”

That’s not just an honorable sentiment. It’s the foundation for good business. 


Vice President of Research and Emerging Issues
Owner of Cogent Writing, LLC