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March Changemaker, DC Central Kitchen

Nourishing Futures: DC Central Kitchen’s Recipe for Empowerment and Sustainability

 

We are excited to present the next installment in our Changemakers Calendar series, shining a light on an organization that serves as a pillar of resilience and renewal in our community – DC Central Kitchen. This month, we are focusing on the remarkable mission and journey of DC Central Kitchen, a leader in the fight against hunger and poverty in DC.

DC Central Kitchen stands as a testament to the power of food, not just as a means of nutrition, but as a tool for social change, job training, and community empowerment. Through its innovative model of using food as a catalyst to transform lives, DC Central Kitchen not only feeds the hungry but also provides comprehensive career training programs, thus tackling the root causes of hunger and poverty.

We had the privilege of speaking with Ja’Sent Brown, the Chief Impact Officer at DC Central Kitchen. Join us as we share a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Our Interview With:

Ja’Sent Brown

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about DC Central Kitchen?

I’m Ja’Sent Brown, the Chief Impact Officer at DC Central Kitchen. It’s an honor to lead our workforce development, Healthy Corners, and community partnerships initiatives. Founded in 1989 by the visionary Robert Egger, DC Central Kitchen began with a radical idea. Inspired during a typical food distribution outing, he realized that many unhoused individuals didn’t just want handouts. They sought the dignity of work despite facing barriers like incarceration, recovery from addiction, homelessness, unemployment, and health issues. 

He envisioned a place where food could be a tool for empowerment, teaching culinary and life skills to transform lives. From our modest start in food recovery and job training for those with significant employment barriers, we’ve grown into a globally recognized social enterprise. Today, we extend beyond workforce development to operate Healthy Corners, bringing fresh produce to food deserts, run social enterprise cafes employing our graduates, provide award-winning school meals, and support community meals. 

Our approach is holistic. We partner with organizations to address needs beyond our scope, like mental health, ensuring we focus on what we do best—using food to empower and build stronger communities. That’s the essence of DC Central Kitchen.

From that legendary beginning to your expansion into numerous programs and partnerships across the city, how do you evaluate the success and impact of your initiatives?
At DC Central Kitchen, setting ambitious, measurable goals is key to our strategy. For instance, in our cornerstone Culinary Job Training program, we aim to increase enrollment from 100 to 250 students by 2025. This goal is bold, but it’s crucial for us to aim high.
Success is measured not just by enrollment numbers but by completion rates, certifications earned—like the ServSafe Manager’s Certification which makes our graduates highly marketable—and impacts such as poverty reduction and decreased recidivism. These metrics underscore the social return on our investment in the community.

Regarding partnerships, success goes beyond simple referrals. It’s about forging meaningful collaborations that pursue joint grants and projects, signifying a deep, mutual commitment to community improvement. These partnerships are a testament to our work’s quality and our intention to support other organizations effectively through our food initiatives, enabling them to excel in their respective missions.

I’ve heard a powerful phrase from DC Central Kitchen that resonates deeply with me: you don’t just teach knife skills, but life skills. Can you expand on that?
That phrase captures the essence of our approach: we’re not just about culinary training. We’re about equipping people for life. Tony Lewis Jr. once highlighted the importance of what happens after class—the ‘third eight hours’ of the day spent in the community or at home, where life skills become crucial.
Our students start each day with two hours of classroom time from 8 to 10 AM, focusing on soft skills and personal development before they even touch culinary equipment. This isn’t just about facing personal challenges. It’s about creating a supportive community among students who share similar barriers and an instructor who’s navigated similar trials. Our self-empowerment curriculum is central to our program.
Only after this crucial two-hour session do we move onto the culinary training. It’s about providing the tools in their toolbelt to navigate life successfully, emphasizing that our mission goes beyond the kitchen.

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Can you talk about different segments of the DC community that you’re currently impacting and where you see it going in the future?
DC Central Kitchen serves as a beacon of opportunity, especially for individuals often overlooked by society. We’re known as the organization that offers second, third, and beyond chances, particularly focusing on returning citizens and single mothers, two groups facing significant barriers.

Returning citizens, for instance, find a swift ‘yes’ with us. Despite societal stereotypes, they’re among our most dedicated and successful participants, which challenges misconceptions and demonstrates their potential when given a chance. This success translates into reduced recidivism and enhanced family reunification, showcasing the transformative power of empowerment and opportunity.

Single mothers are another critical focus. Recognizing childcare as their primary barrier, we’ve tailored programs to accommodate their schedules, enabling them to participate fully. This not only supports their personal growth but also enriches family life by integrating nutritional education and practical culinary skills.

Our Healthy Corners program is another area where we’re making a significant impact. In parts of DC, accessing fresh food requires considerable effort, with some residents traveling extensively to reach a grocery store. By partnering with over 50 corner stores, we ensure these communities have access to fresh, affordable produce and healthy snacks. Moreover, our program supports SNAP beneficiaries, offering incentives that effectively double their purchasing power for fruits and vegetables, debunking the myth that low-income, predominantly Black and Brown communities don’t desire healthy food options.
Through vibrant and appealing presentations, we make healthy choices enticing, proving that accessibility, affordability, and attractiveness are key to changing consumption habits. This holistic approach not only addresses immediate food security but also fosters a healthier, more empowered community.

 

How does the credibility of DC Central Kitchen’s certification influence employment opportunities for your graduates in the restaurant and hospitality industry?
The reputation of DC Central Kitchen carries significant weight in the restaurant and hospitality sector, primarily because of our longstanding presence and the tangible success of our graduates. Our partners, ranging from local eateries to national chains, recognize our name for several reasons. 

Firstly, many have hosted our students for externships, witnessing their work ethic firsthand. This direct experience, coupled with the fact that many choose to hire our graduates, speaks volumes about the mutual trust and respect between DC Central Kitchen and the industry.

Additionally, our partners are well aware of our commitment to workforce development and the populations we serve. This shared commitment to providing second chances and supporting personal and professional growth enriches our partnerships.

Importantly, our program’s certification is backed by rigorous accreditation. We’re licensed through the Office of the State Superintendent of Education’s Higher Education Licensure Commission, ensuring our certificate carries the same credibility as a university degree. Moreover, our affiliation with the American Culinary Federation, indicated by the emblem our students wear, signals to employers that our graduates have undergone a comprehensive training program.

This accreditation reassures restaurant owners of our graduates’ capabilities, especially noting the managerial level of their ServSafe® certification. It’s this combination of practical experience, robust training, and recognized certification that makes our graduates highly desirable to employers, fostering a productive relationship with the restaurant and hospitality industry.

And now, please share with everyone about the amazing chili cook-off!
Our chili cook-off is a highlight event that happens every seven weeks, offering a vibrant showcase of our students’ culinary and life skills. If you’re ever in town, you simply must experience it. This event is a creative battleground where students are tasked with devising an award-winning chili recipe in teams, encouraging not only culinary innovation but also teamwork and leadership.

We’ve witnessed an incredible array of chilies, from seafood-infused concoctions to traditional blends with innovative twists. It’s a testament to the creativity and skill our students bring to the kitchen. Our partner organizations and restaurant affiliates join as judges, adding a layer of real-world evaluation to the mix. But it’s not just about the taste; it’s an opportunity for our students to articulate their journey, reflecting on the transformative seven weeks they’ve experienced.

More than a cooking competition, the chili cook-off is a platform for our students to practice and display the interview and public speaking skills they’ve honed. It’s a chance for them to explain their culinary creations confidently to seasoned chefs, preparing them for professional kitchens. This event challenges them to break from the ‘keep your head down, stay quiet’ mindset many have been conditioned to adopt, encouraging them to find and use their voices. It’s about affirming their worth and their story, showing them that their voices are not only heard but valued.

DC Central Kitchen Operates Cafes throughout DC. – Visit them at:

DC CENTRAL KITCHEN CAFE AT THE KLEIN CENTER – 2121 First Street SW

DC CENTRAL KITCHEN CAFE AT THE ARC – 1901 Mississippi Ave SE – East Building

MARIANNE’S BY DC CENTRAL KITCHEN – 901 G St. NW, (ground floor of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library)

How To Get Involved With DC Central Kitchen
We extend our thanks to Ja’Sent Brown for sharing her insights and her time, and to DC Central Kitchen for their commitment to empowerment and community service. Let’s take this opportunity to contribute, in whatever way we can, to continue building a community that supports, nourishes, and uplifts everyone.
For those inspired by DC Central Kitchen’s mission and the stories of change and hope shared by Ja’Sent Brown, there’s a direct path to making a difference. By visiting dccentralkitchen.org, you can find the ‘Volunteer with Us’ link, welcoming both individuals and groups to join the effort. 

It’s a unique chance to see firsthand the impact of your contribution, bridging connections between the food served and the stories of those who’ve turned their lives around through DC Central Kitchen.

Gratefully,
Bobby Firestein

For our 2024 Full Sail Media community changemaker calendar, we’ve partnered with 13 different organizations, all dedicated to making a positive impact in our community. Baltimore Healthy Start is our featured partner for the month of January. To get your own 2024 Full Sail Media calendar, click the link below.