Robert Egger is the Founder and President of the DC Central Kitchen, the country’s first “community kitchen”, where food donated by hospitality businesses and farms is used to fuel a nationally recognized culinary arts job-training program. Since opening in 1989, the Kitchen has produced over 23 million meals and helped 800 men and women gain full time employment. The Kitchen operates its own revenue generating business, Fresh Start Catering, as well as the Campus Kitchens Project, which coordinates similar recycling/meal programs in 30 colleges or high school based kitchens.
In addition, Robert is the Founder and President of CForward, an advocacy organization that rallies employees of nonprofits to educate candidates about the economic role that nonprofits play in every community, and to support candidates who have detailed plans to strengthen the economy that includes nonprofits.
In Washington, Robert was the founding Chair of both the Mayor’s Commission on Nutrition and Street Sense, Washington’s “homeless” newspaper. He was also the Co-Convener of the first Nonprofit Congress, held in Washington DC in 2006. Currently, Robert serves on the Board of the national addiction recovery program, Back On My Feet, the Philanthropic Collaborative, and Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen.
Robert’s book on the non-profit sector, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All, was released in 2004 by HarperCollins. It received the 2005 McAdam Book Award for “Best Nonprofit Management Book” by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.
Robert was included in the Non Profit Times list of the “50 Most Powerful and Influential” nonprofit leaders from 2006-2009. He was the recipient of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s 2007 “Lifetime Achievement” award and the 2004 James Beard Foundation “Humanitarian of the Year” award. He has been named an Oprah Angel, a Washingtonian of the Year, a Point of Light and one of the Ten Most Caring People in America, by the Caring Institute. He is also a 15-gallon blood donor to the American Red Cross.
Robert speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement and social enterprise. He writes blogs and editorials to share his ideas about the nonprofit sector and the future of America. To check out Robert’s most recent speaking schedule, blogs, and editorials, please visit www.robertegger.org.
Q: What inspired you to create DC Central Kitchen?
A: I was a nightclub manager who went out one night to volunteer to serve the homeless who lived on the streets of Washington, DC. That night, I helped serve food that was purchased at an expensive grocery store to men and women who were lined up, in the rain, right across the street from the State Department. While I appreciated what these groups were trying to do, I was amazed by the short-sighted nature of it…particularly in light of the knowledge I had about how much food was being thrown away everyday in Washington by food service establishments like restaurants, hotels and caterers. Not only did these businesses have food that could be donated, they also had jobs…so I proposed putting the two opportunities together under the roof of a “central kitchen” where you could both prepare meals while training men and women for culinary jobs. Since opening in 1989, we’ve produced almost 26 million meals and helped over 1,000 men and women regain control over their lives via employment (including, now, at some of the Kitchens revenue generating businesses).
Q: What challenges did you face when you first started out and as you continued to grow?
A: DCCK was a first-of-its-kind operation. Building on the pioneering food recovery work of City Harvest, Atlanta’s Table and Philabundance, I added a job-training component. Still, BOTH ideas were radical and subject to urban myths (people thought is was illegal to donate prepared food, while others thought it was impossible to train the homeless for work)…so it took some time before people really “got it”. It helped that DCCK opened right as both the Internet and cable television appeared, which gave our camera-ready business model significant national visibility – visibility we used to help support the efforts of 60 other programs that opened based on our model.
Q: What do we as a community- local, national and global- have to do to respond in a relevant and effective way to the changing face and consequences of hunger? How much of a role does food recovery play in this?
A: While I respect my colleagues who still focus on “hunger” I think that we should all be working on “nutrition” as a way to leverage our work into a national dialogue about how much healthy food we discard, but also the role food can play in economic recovery and human growth. Make no mistake–what we in food recovery do is amazing, but we’re using what is, in effect, lost profit. Food that we recover was purchased or grown, and while people are grateful for the ability we provide to avoid it being needlessly wasted…at the end of the day, businesses are rapidly using science and inventory controls to chip away at waste. We must use the limited time and food we have to push, push, push for a wildly different discussion about wage, housing, addiction and other root causes of hunger.
Q: Can you relate any of your experience / ethos to the work we do at Lovin’ Spoonfuls?
A: We are twins of different mothers!!
Q: What do you think it will take to inspire fundamental change in the food system in this country?
A: I believe it will come when we focus on nutrition as a source of economic security and civic growth. I’m somewhat of a tactician…and I see a significant opportunity ahead, as 80 million baby boomers begin to age. Seniors vote, and if we can help launch a dialogue about senior nutrition, I believe we can take the already powerful national dialogue about food, food security, school lunch, community gardens, inter-generational service, local commerce and nutrition over the top.
Q: What place do nonprofits have in the fabric of a community?
A: Simply put–there is no profit without nonprofits. Our work sets the stage for traditional businesses to thrive. But….nonprofits cannot fix anything. Too many get lost thinking that if they just get a little bigger, they can serve more people and that will solve the problem. It’s cool—but it’s not a solution. That, in my opinion, is not the road we should be on. Our great destiny is to reveal resources that are abundant and that can be used to higher means, with greater effect. At the Kitchen, we show the power that community, food and those we left out can have if used with audacity and a bold determination to get a new discussion going.
Q: Can you speak to the power that community has as it relates to Lovin’ Spoonfuls and what we’ve been able to do in two short years?
A: The people we see going to farmers markets, or working at community gardens, or in reforming school food or senior meals….what they are tapping into isn’t food….they are helping people who are hungry for connections/community and a sense of belonging. Lovin’ Spoonfuls has tapped into those desires. It is now your opportunity to convert all that keen interest in your amazing work into something bigger, bolder, badder and better–a city, state and then a national discussion about what comes next.
Robert is a mentor to our Founder & Executive Director, Ashley Stanley.