A Walk Through the Kitchen with Mike Curtin
In our interview with Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, we learn about his past professional experience, his overall vision for his organization, and his personal inspiration for securing healthy, sustainable food for all. Our interview is below.
Edible Schoolyard Project: What is the overall vision for DC Central Kitchen?
Mike Curtin: The Kitchen is based on the very simple premise that waste is wrong. That waste could be food, productive minds, or kitchen space. We aim to take the existing resources that we have in our community, and that exist in communities across the country, and move them around in ways that maybe we haven’t thought about before in order to make change.
ESYP: Which issues have you been focused on?
MK: The Kitchen prepares 5,200 meals every day that are delivered to shelters, transitional homes, halfway houses, and a host of partner social service agencies. In addition, we run a nationally recognized Culinary Job Training Program for men and women who are coming out of prison, in recovery from addiction, or who have suffered homelessness and chronic unemployment.
An old proverb has often been used to describe the Kitchen: “Give someone a fish, feed them for a day; teach someone to fish, feed them for a lifetime.” And to follow, a Jesuit priest I once knew asked the question: “What if all the fishermen are unemployed?” With that in mind, we have been intensely focused on our social enterprise business that creates jobs for the men and women that have graduated from our program. Over the last two years, DC Central Kitchen has created over 70 new jobs for this group and has earned close to $10 million in revenue to support the organization.
ESYP: What inspires you to do the work you're doing?
MK: I have the great gift and pleasure of being able to see people’s lives change for the better on a daily basis. The Kitchen is all about liberation – liberation from homeless, prison, and stereotypes. Being able to see the joy and pride in someone’s eyes when he shows you the first paycheck he's ever earned – or the lease to his first apartment – is something that most people don’t get to see and share. To be part of that, every day, is all the inspiration anyone could ever need.
ESYP: How has your past experience in hospitality and restaurant ownership informed your work today?
MK: Now that many years have passed, I can look back at the five years I owned and operated my own restaurant as my first experience in the nonprofit sector. I still feel that I am in the hospitality business; I just have a bit of a different market. Just like our work in the restaurant business, what we do is about making what we do better, cooler, and more effective each day. We are also asking ourselves: “What is new? What is the future?” And then we work to position ourselves to be in the place that our work will have the most impact on our community.
ESYP: How do you ensure that DC Central Kitchen is working to secure sustainable, healthy food for all?
MK: I had a light bulb moment several years ago when I realized we were buying produce that was coming from Belgium. We were determined to find a better, smarter way to get good food at good prices and make it work for our community. We started talking to farmers and asked them if we could buy product that, for aesthetic, geometric or distribution issues, was never going to make it off their farm. This was a big switch from the old-fashioned thought process of charity. Predictably, farmers loved the idea. We know spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with local farmers and growers on produce, dairy, and protein, that we put into all areas of our work.
ESYP: Have you established partnerships in the DC area that have strengthened your programming and reach?
MK: If DC Central Kitchen is about nothing else, it is about partnerships. Our partners allow us to do so much of what we simply would not be able to do alone. Unfortunately, I feel the word “partnership” is far overused and misused, particularly in the nonprofit context. For something to be a true partnership, all parties need to get something out of the relationship. We can’t be shy about that or pretend it isn’t real.
ESYP: Are there organizations or leaders that you would like to have the chance to collaborate with?
MK: We have been so fortunate to work with so many very cool and creative people. We are always learning and growing, so there are many more to collaborate with.
ESYP: What could change in our current food system to help your program's efficacy?
MK: It seems that we have a food system that is fighting against itself. On the one hand, we have a group of good folks at the USDA talking about better school food; on the other hand, we have a group of good folks at the USDA pushing the policies that support the cheap, processed food that we want to get out of schools. For good or for bad, our food system is incredibly complex and delicately balanced. While dismantling it wholesale is probably not the way to go, more focus given to and resources spent on subsidizing the kind of food that will help us grow and live healthy productive lives (as opposed to that which will cost us hundreds of billions of dollars in easily avoidable health care costs every year) would be a good start.
ESYP: You have succeeded when....?
MK: I always say, “We are in business to put ourselves out of business.” So, I guess you could say I will have succeeded when our work here is no longer needed. Sadly, that day is a long way off. We can, however, relish and enjoy the individual successes – some big, some small – that we see every day.
ESYP: Is there one program within DC Central Kitchen which is particularly inspiring to you?
MK: It is all magic but the training program shines. When you see someone in their 50s stand up – who was a heroin addict for 20 years, spent 23 years in prison, and never had a real job – and talk about how proud they are to have graduated and started working, you can’t help but be inspired. The downside is that it can remind me of how selfish I can be or unmindful of the beauty that is all around us every day. If I ever need a reminder, I just take a walk through the Kitchen.
DC Central Kitchen is a member of edibleschoolyard.org