How can food waste make the world a better place?
When it feeds nearly 11,000 people per day.
In the spirit of the holidays, I’m pleased to turn my blog over to DC Central Kitchen’s Chief Development Officer, Alexander Justice Moore, who’ll share with us how reducing food waste can make a significant impact on hunger and in our communities. He’s also the author of The Food Fighters: DC Central Kitchen’s First Twenty-Five Years on the Front Lines of Hunger and Poverty.
As the year draws to a close, I wish you and yours a happy and healthy holiday season!
For those of us invested in the fight against food waste, 2015 has been an incredible year. Thanks to high-profile documentaries, bold public initiatives, and great books like Food Foolish, food waste has gained increasing recognition as a major environmental, economic, and social problem.
But at DC Central Kitchen, we believe that in addition to posing a complex problem, food waste also offers some powerful opportunities. Since our founding in 1989, we’ve been pioneers in recovering food before it ends up in landfills and creatively using it to nourish people in need. As the nation’s first community kitchen, we centralized the recovery of prepared food from restaurants, hotels, and retailers in our city, and later added ugly fruits and vegetables from local farms to our list of misfit ingredients. Instead of picking up excess food from a donor and driving it straight to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, we realized that combining wasted food from different sources in a central processing facility would allow us to turn excess product into nutritious meals—meals that we could then deliver reliably to dozens of partner agencies with hungry clients across DC. Better meals, made efficiently and consistently, for less money.
It made sense to us back then, and today we transform 800,000 pounds of surplus produce, proteins, and starches into 1.8 million balanced dishes for DC’s nonprofits and shelters each year. But we ran into plenty of skeptics in those early days. In time, with the help of the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, we eased concerns about liability and proved our model could work. Before long, other communities began approaching us, seeking to replicate our success. We’ve helped more than 60 fellow community kitchens get their start across the United States, and in 2001, we launched our own national replication program: The Campus Kitchens Project.
The Campus Kitchens Project empowers college and high school students around the U.S. to recover surplus food from their cafeterias and surrounding communities, prepare balanced meals in idle campus kitchens during off-hours, and deliver those dishes to partner agencies serving people in need. Today, 23,000 students volunteer at 49 Campus Kitchens nationwide, preventing the waste of 1 million pounds of food each year and constituting the country’s largest student-led solution to hunger and food waste.
But the most inspiring thing about all of our efforts to fight food waste is that they aren’t just about food. They’re about people, too. At DC Central Kitchen, we use the process of turning wasted food into good meals as a training opportunity for at-risk adults overcoming homelessness, incarceration, and addiction. Since the recession of 2008 alone, our intense Culinary Job Training program has produced 610 graduates with a 90% job placement rate. And The Campus Kitchens Project uses the same food recycling process to help students build their leadership skills.
Last year, 97% of surveyed Campus Kitchen volunteers said their experience with us made them feel more confident in their leadership abilities, while 91% said they’ve acquired skills that will make them more likely to find a job after graduation.
The fight against food waste involves more than keeping food out of landfills. It requires designing systems that deliver the greatest environmental, economic, and social returns on the resources we invest. That’s why we’re proud of partnering with United Technologies to offer our proven job training program to more at-risk members of our community, and to keep pushing the dialogue on food waste past the problem and onto to the opportunities.
-Alexander Justice Moore