DC Central Kitchen is a nonprofit catering and educational organization. Its focus is to provide careers through its culinary job training program for overlooked citizens with histories of poverty, incarceration and homelessness.
“We care about our students’ potential much more than their pasts,” said Erica Teti-Zilinskas, the organization’s director of communications and marketing, in a phone interview. “We specialize in equipping adults with those histories with the hands-on training and support they need to begin a culinary career.”
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
DC Central Kitchen helps provide self-sufficient job skills to troubled people looking to transform their lives in the nation’s capital. The organization partners with different nonprofits and small businesses to produce healthy snacks and meals from would-be wasted food.
“Each of our social ventures is designed to address the deeper intergenerational challenges of hunger, homelessness, incarceration and ultimately, poverty,” said Michael Curtin, Jr., the chief executive officer.
The 14-week program is tuition-free and provides weekly transportation fees to help students attend classes. Most classes are held in downtown Washington, D.C.
Many students are overcoming and dealing with the trauma of addiction, homelessness and release from prison. Some are immigrants, who take the course to enhance their job qualifications, according to the website.
Graduates with a criminal record are less likely to re-offend and return to prison than the national average, saving taxpayers money, the program highlighted.
Billy, a class participant, added, “You always have to keep your past in the front of your mind; you have to have a ‘why’ when you’re going through life, because you can make it.”
The program teaches hands-on knife skills, culinary theory, food sensitivity awareness, and food sanitation. Students learn interviewing skills, how to write a winning resume and workplace ethics. They are trained to obtain a nationally recognized ServSafe Food Handler’s Certification. Also, students receive help with referrals for childcare and housing, for a minimum of one year after graduation.
“Thanks to our generous donors, all admitted students receive full scholarships to attend our program,” Teti-Zilinskas said. “So there is no cost to our students at any point in their training or in the two years of post-graduation support we provide.”
After seven weeks in the training facility, students have guaranteed internships where they are paired with a mentoring chef at an area hotel, restaurant or cafeteria. There, they spend four weeks, gaining hands-on experience and building a professional network.
“I didn’t want to just learn how to do something and get a job; I wanted to acquire a skill that I could use to get other jobs,” said Crystal, a class participant. “So, I focused on learning, as opposed to just being there. I showed up every morning on time, excited about being there.”
The program touts a large percentage of job placement for its graduates as well as hiring graduates to its own staff.
“We put our money where our mission is,” said the website. Of the organization’s 151 staff members, there are 66 graduates of the Culinary Job Training program working across five departments.
All DC Central Kitchen staff earn above the DC living wage and are provided with full health insurance coverage, among other benefits such as medical, dental, life and disability insurance policies.
“I have a second chance now,” said William, a graduate. “I had a chance to work other places after graduation from the program, but I decided to stay here because giving back is really what I want to do.
“When I see a homeless person on the street, I can now say that I am helping him because of the work I do here,” William continued.
The program provides food and services to at-risk afterschool programs, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing. It won the Golden Carrot Award, a national honor for healthy school improvement, and two Champion of Change Awards from the White House.
Entrepreneur Robert Egger founded the organization in 1988 and built on that model to form L.A. Kitchen on the West Coast. The companies are not affiliated.
“We’re empowering the next generation of leaders to fight hunger and food waste,” the website concluded. “We believe that hunger is a symptom of the deeper problem of poverty and that food is our chosen tool for changing individual lives while addressing systemic failures.”
–Ahna Straube contributed to this story