While employment has overall stabilized to pre-pandemic levels countrywide, the hospitality industry had an abysmal two years, with unemployment skyrocketing as high as 39% by April of 2020. Factors included low pay, lack of benefits, higher health risks, and childcare issues, to name a few. As of January 2022, according to FRED Economic Data the hospitality unemployment rate still lags, double the national figure at 8%.
“We’re Hiring” signs abound, but one bedrock organization is steadily improving the state of the industry and its community.
DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit culinary jobs training program known for its connection to global chef José Andrés, has 33 years of service under its belt. But Chief Development Officer Alexander Moore says they’ve continued to adapt based on what their community says they need. That was particularly true during the pandemic, when the social enterprise served more than 6 million nutritious emergency meals — and counting — while supporting local food sources.
“What we’ve tried to do is listen very closely to what our community told us and how we could align with our values,” Moore says. “Certainly in our founding days, our goal was to turn the soup kitchen model on its head.”
For DC Central Kitchen, that meant not just bringing nutritious, dignified food to communities who need it the most, but paying individuals with high barriers to employment living wages to create it. Moore says the daily exchange of getting emergency food to people who experienced hunger, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and trauma showed that a mere feeding transaction wasn’t sufficient.
“We needed to do more to get to the root cause of those challenges, and that centered our work in job training and workforce development,” Moore says.
(Photo courtesy of DC Central Kitchen)
Today, DC Central Kitchen is a contract food service provider in schools, shelters and rehabilitation programs across D.C. They also do corporate catering and operate job-training cafes. The next one is set to open in downtown D.C. at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. They hire their own graduates from their culinary program, and provide a living wage, good benefits and full-time hours. They partner with area farms to source locally based ingredients.
Those widespread relationships turned out to be key in the early months of COVID-19.
“We became a large-scale aggregator almost overnight,” Moore says. “The program grew so large at the peak of the pandemic that we took over a good chunk of the Washington Convention Center. We had multiple farms tell us we helped save their farm during the pandemic when restaurants were closing down and venues weren’t operating.”
The jobs program also continued to adapt throughout the pandemic, and they leaned into their political advocacy work, asking legislators to expand SNAP benefits and introduce WIC (a federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children) at neighborhood grocers and corner stores that were formally barred from accepting them, even where no other grocery options were available to customers.
“We have been learning nonstop for two years, and along the way employed record numbers of graduates in our training program,” Moore says. “ In every case, we stayed true to our values, but responded differently to different challenges.”
CDFI Government Printing Office Federal Credit Union (GPOFCU) played an integral role in helping DC Central Kitchen expand prior to 2019, providing financial literacy and helping build their credit history. Stephanie Covington, president and CEO of (GPOFCU), says they have an open door DC Central Kitchen even after they wrapped up their program with them.
“Those individuals working in D.C. were still encouraged to reach out, as they were eligible to join our credit union as members,” she says.
One of DC Central Kitchen's cafes (Photo courtesy of DC Central Kitchen)
DC Central Kitchen is building a new 36,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art central operations center on the Washington waterfront that will tentatively be completed this fall. They have big plans for the new space.
“It’s going to let us double daily meal production to 25,000 meals a day, and grow our social enterprise portfolio with schools and seniors across the city,” Moore says, noting that they’re also hoping to increase enrollment in their job-training program by 150% by 2025. “It will allow us to connect direct service work with the larger systemic conversations that are so needed.”
They are open to additional CDFI partnerships in the future, especially with the campaign to build the new facility, tentatively finishing in fall of 2022. But while they do rely on some grants and donations, the program is proud of its financial sustainability.
“The most important source of revenue for DC Central Kitchen is enterprise revenue we earn ourselves, we’re really proud of that,” Moore says. “The more revenue we earn sustainably, the more people are inspired to give because they appreciate our approach.”
This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.
Hadassah Patterson has written for news outlets for more than a decade, contributing for seven years to local online news and with 15 years of experience in commercial copywriting. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.