10 Questions for D.C. Central Kitchen's Michael F. Curtin, Jr.

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At first, we might have tried too hard and maybe put too much emphasis on "healthy" as opposed to simply tasting good. So we looked at what the menus had been and just started doing them smarter. The standard cafeteria burger and spaghetti became local, hormone-free beef on a whole grain bun and that same beef in a sauce made with fresh herbs and local tomatoes over whole wheat pasta; fried fish and chicken nuggets became herb-crusted tilapia and baked free-range chicken strips with homemade BBQ sauce.

GL: In your Healthy Corners program, which delivers fresh produce and healthy snacks to 29 stores in D.C.'s food deserts, what are some of the most popular items?

MC: We faced the same challenge here that we did with the schools, just with a little twist: "People in those areas of the city will never eat fresh food." Again, if we don't offer it, that will always be true. The trick here was to convince the merchants that this would work and that the "experimentation" process wouldn't cost them a penny. So we were able to source some funding to purchase and provide to the merchants display refrigerators, shelving units, and signage. We then provided the early product for free, stepping the cost up gradually to a true wholesale price after five months. By this time, the merchants saw this product was selling and that their customers wanted more.

Since we started charging full price for product in January, we have seen sales increase every month, and more stores are signing up for the program.

GL: Your outreach isn't limited to young kids but also pulls in college kids through the Campus Kitchens Project in 33 communities across America. Does this mean the freshman 10 will become the freshman 2?

MC: I guess we are making progress; when I was in college, it was the freshman 15.

The focus of the Campus Kitchens Project is really aimed more at having the students use food as a tool to get more involved in their communities and have the program act as an incubator for young leaders of tomorrow.

GL: Your Culinary Training Program for unemployed men and women who seek to replace homelessness, addiction, and incarceration with new careers has changed so many lives. Can you share a success story?

MC: I can give you well over a thousand. The important thing to understand is why we put so much emphasis on our training program. The simple fact is that food will not end hunger. We will never feed our way out of hunger, and in many ways, hunger isn't even about food.

I'll tell you about Dawain.…Dawain grew up in southeast D.C. When he was 10 years old, he thought to himself that if—and that was a big if—he was alive when he was 21, he'd be in jail. And this was what the other kids in his neighborhood thought as well. His dad was a drug dealer who was in prison. His mom was an addict who would leave him and his two brothers for days and weeks at a time in apartments without water or electricity. When he was 11, he was arrested for the first time stealing food to feed himself and his brothers. This started a very predictable cycle of violence, gangs, and incarceration. Except for a couple months here and there, he would spend the next 23 years of his life in prison.

When he went in for the last time, he told himself that he had to change; that he just couldn't do this anymore. So he did what we, society, told him to do: He got his GED and several trade certificates. When he got out at age 33, he tried hard for two months to get a job using the skills he had learned in prison, only to be rejected because of his past. He told his case worker that he might as well go back to prison now, because without a job he would have to go back to the street, and one of two things would happen: He'd get hurt or hurt someone else and end up back in prison. Instead, his case worker sent him to D.C. Central Kitchen.

He had a big chip on his shoulder, but settled in and did a great job in the class, and we hired him as soon as he graduated to work in our catering company. After a year or so, he asked to move over to the production kitchen so that he could work directly with our culinary job-training students who were coming out of prison, just as he had. He's been with us now for almost seven years and is a manager. He is no longer costing us all $50,000 per year to keep him in prison; instead he's putting money back into the community, paying taxes, paying rent, and buying food, has a good job, his own place to live, health insurance, and a retirement plan…and a daughter. And his daughter, when she is 10 years old, will never say to herself, "If I'm alive when I'm 21, I'll be in prison." This is what we are talking about when say we need to break the generational cycle of incarceration and poverty, and this is what D.C. Central Kitchen is all about.

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