“Ten Creative Turkey Sandwich Recipes.” This was just one of dozens of articles featured in magazines this month about what to do with the leftovers from the Thanksgiving Day feast.

A few weeks ago, I went to hear Robert Eggers, founder of DC Central Kitchen, talk about how his organization creatively uses “leftovers” of many kinds to address issues of hunger in Washington, DC. Eggers was in Lancaster as the keynote speaker for a luncheon hosted by Community First Fund.

DC Central Kitchen collects 3000 pounds of surplus food every day (EVERY DAY!) from restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, and other food service businesses around DC. Then, their team of well-trained workers converts those 3000 pounds of surplus food into 5000 meals that they distribute to 100 shelters, transitional homes, and rehab clinics around the city. These organizations refer their clients (people transitioning out of homelessness or prison or overcoming addiction) into DC Central Kitchen’s culinary employment training program – and they then become more of those well-trained workers who prepare the meals that are distributed. Graduates of the culinary training program are then placed in employment at area restaurants, hotels, and catering businesses. Retirees who had been chefs or worked in a variety of food service businesses help to run the whole enterprise.

In his talk at the Community First Fund luncheon, Eggers described DC Central Kitchen this way:
“All we did was utilize resources that already existed: reusing food that would have been thrown away, people who society had discarded, a kitchen that was underutilized, and retirees with lots of valuable experience to come and help.”

They also run a catering business and cafe to create jobs for their graduates, and provide ongoing revenue to support the whole DC Central Kitchens operation. They’ve been doing all of this since 1989.

This is social enterprise at its best: using business principles and practices, and applying the entrepreneurial spirit to address pressing social issues.

In his remarks, Eggers said, “We have to get rid of the idea that nonprofits do good deeds, and businesses earn money. We need to apply the entrepreneurial spirit to nonprofits and we need a generation of politicians who understand that businesses and nonprofits can be brought together to create “civic profits.”

DC Central Kitchen addresses hunger, yes. But they also give “people who society had discarded” training, skills, a sense of purpose and worth, and new opportunities. One of the numerous graduates from their culinary training program, a man named Howard Thomas, shared this reflection in the latest DC Central Kitchen Annual Report:

I’ve made the transition from destroying lives to helping lives. I was once on the streets selling drugs, but now I cook healthy school meals. I wouldn’t trade this work for anything. I wish I could have had someone to provide this kind of positive influence when I was growing up. Now I can be a mentor and teach these young men to make smarter decisions.

The meals DC Central Kitchen provides save millions of dollars every year for the shelters, transitional homes, and rehab clinics, allowing those organizations to focus their limited resources on their unique missions.

And DC Central Kitchen addresses a significant environmental issue: preventing tons of surplus food from going into landfills. In fact, food waste is the second largest category of waste that we generated in the United States (second only to paper).

According to an article from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank,

In 2009, 34 million tons of food waste was generated. Of that, 33 million tons, or 97 percent, was thrown away in landfills or incinerators. When excess food, leftover food, and food scraps are disposed of in a landfill, they decompose rapidly and become a significant source of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has started a “Food Recovery Challenge” to encourage individuals, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants, food service businesses and others to significantly reduce the amount of food that gets thrown away, diverting it instead to feed hungry people, the way DC Central Kitchen is doing. (the EPA provides additional ideas for diverting surplus food and food scraps away from the landfill, including composting)

Hunger. Homelessness. Employment. The Environment. Four of the most challenging and pressing social issues in the US right now. DC Central Kitchen has found a smart, practical and highly successful way to tackle all four, using principles and practices from both the business world and the nonprofit sector.

What steps might we take in our own communities to follow their lead?

To hear about some of the social enterprise initiatives underway and being explored in and around Lancaster County, plan to attend this FREE event:

“Social Enterprises: Building a Transitional Jobs Network in the Heart of the Recovery”: the 12th Annual Workforce Summit
DATE: Friday, December 16, 2011
TIME: 7:30 am – 9:30 am
LOCATION: Eden Resort Inn, 222 Eden Rd., Lancaster, PA
COST: The event is free (with breakfast included!) but REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED: To register, send your name and contact info via email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call Joyce Lenox at 717-735-0333

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice sustainability entrepreneurs social enterprise

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