Robert Egger, founder and president of the DC Central Kitchen in Washington, D.C., will give a lecture titled “Making Nonprofits Responsive: Solving the Interconnected Problems of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness” at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Park Hall Auditorium. Staff Writer Kathy Laluk spoke with Egger about hunger and homelessness in America, and the mindset behind charitable organizations.
Kathy Laluk: What was your inspiration or reason for starting the DC Central Kitchen in Washington, DC?
Robert Egger: Actually, I ran nightclubs, and that was my chosen career�I didn�t go to college. [I] went to volunteer [at a kitchen] one night and really saw people being fed with food purchased from the local supermarkets and then saw them standing in line without anyone helping them get out of the cold. So, I basically put together this small business plan hoping that the groups that were serving [that night] would jump at the opportunity to feed more people better food and shorten the line. But no one would do it. It was sort of one of those moments where my road forked and all of a sudden I had to choose between a destiny where I thought I had a future, which was to open the greatest nightclub in the whole world, and then realizing that if I didn’t start the Kitchen, it wouldn’t get going. And I realized I would be opening a nightclub in a world where people were being fed outside each night. So I thought I could just get the kitchen started, and then go back, but here it is, 18 years later. The important part is we never, ever try to confuse the Kitchen with being the solution. What we do is try to use the excitement, the energy and the ideas of people who would normally be hesitant to talk about issues of wage, domestic violence, mental health, and addiction into a conversation we need to have.
KL: Could you explain a little bit about what the DC Central Kitchen does?
RE: Every single day of the week, we collect surplus food donated by restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and local universities and we bring it back to the kitchen and then we sort the food. Then, as a part of a job training program, we convert all these random donations, and some purchased food, into the better part of 4,000 meals, which we then very deliberately use to support organizations that we feel share our sense of purpose and mission. I’m not [interested] in feeding a whole bunch of people food everyday and saying, “Aren;t we great?” I want to use food as a way to liberate people, not just the men and women in the program, but also the volunteers who come in to work side by side [with them]�for example, we have students from Princeton here today, and local high school students all working with men and women who enrolled in our 67th job training program.
KL: �And how do men and women go about enrolling in that program?
RE: �Well, whoever is at the bottom of society is who we try to reach out to. Over the years we’ve seen everything from heroin to crack to welfare mothers to felons coming out of prison — you name it. We have outreach workers who go out to different shelters and different programs around the city and try to say in effect, “Here;s a great opportunity. If you’re up for it, we’re a group that’s really good at what we do. If you’re up for twelve weeks [of working], we can get you a good job.”
KL: How would you say the DC Central Kitchen differs from other charitable organizations?
RE: First and foremost, we’re not a charity. But I think charity is a state of mind. We think we’re liberators here. We work tirelessly, you know, we’re highly motivated to do what we do. We’re social entrepreneurs, we’re bad-ass agents of change, here to work every single day of the week to try and elevate the discussion we need to have to move beyond giving people leftover food for dinner. We’re social entrepreneurs, we’re bad-ass agents of change, here to work every single day of the week to try and elevate
the discussion we need to have to move beyond giving people leftover food
KL: And do you think that makes a difference?
RE: I know it does. If you think about it, we’re only a couple hundred yards from the nation’s capital. We’ve had Presidents and Senators and students from all over America who came here and continue to come here. There have been about 40 cities that have done some variation of [the Kitchen] I think we’ve had a tremendous influence, and that’s what we’re interested in. We’re not here to get paid. I mean, we believe people should be paid a reasonable salary to do this kind of work, but the currency we’re really interested in is influence. And I think from that point of view, we’re millionaires.
KL: What, in your opinion, are some of the biggest causes of poverty, hunger, and homelessness and other problems that your organization looks to aid?
RE: Well, it’s funny. Homelessness is this word we use to basically avoid conversations about wage, domestic violence, mental health, addiction, prison and so forth. Each one of these issues is big and they’re not just going to magically go away unless we really talk about it. One of the things I’m really keen on, and it plays out in Tompkins County, is rural poverty. We’re only half-good at urban poverty, and we’re really not good at all. I think the biggest issue I’m concerned about is the aging of America and the fact that 80 million Baby-Boomers are about to get old, and we don’t have a big plan. And I think that’s really going to be acute in rural America. So I’m wildly interested in working with partners and non-profit [organizations] working in rural America to see if we can really get ourselves collectively organized to deliver better services, but also to begin to talk about what we could do if we were organized and if we started to work together, and really to become a greater political force in America, which is where I really think we need to go.
KL: Do you think there is anything the Bush Administration could be doing to help curb these problems, or do you think it is a problem of the people?
RE: No, I think frankly, it’s not the Bush Administration, or any Administration. I think unfortunately we still view the non-profit sector in America, which is your university it’s hospitals, it’s synagogues, it’s mosKLues, it’s DC Central Kitchen, [and] if you took [that sector], lifted it up and put it down somewhere else, it’d be the seventh biggest economy on the planet. Yet, the people view us as charity. They think we can solve our problems with leftover money, leftover food, leftover time. And all of us deal with this very flawed view and until the non-profit sector realizes we’re the ones who have to make that change, then I think we’re going to stay right where we are. We’re just not going to have the tools we need to do the job that society wants us to do.
KL: �Why do you think an Ithaca College student (or any college student for that matter), should care about these problems?
RE: I think students, in particular, should be involved for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, is the economics [of the matter]. Your generation is going to be paying the taxes. My generation, with love in our hearts, made charity bigger. But making it bigger still was not the answer. I’m wildly interested in intellectually engaging your generation. Ninety percent of college freshmen, and I’d wager 90 percent of the freshmen class at Ithaca, has done community service. And I’m stunned by that logic, because if you think about it, that means that universities in America, and Ithaca, is brimming with students, who have potentially amazing new ideas about philanthropy. And I really want your generation to step up and say, �Well, we admire the work you all did in building a non-profit sector, but we’re not necessarily interested in just doing what you did. If I’m your age, I should be saying to my generation, I love you, and I admire you’ve done, but you haven’t put a serious hurt on the status-KLuo poverty in America. And my generation is about to pay the bill, so we’re going to try some new ideas. And I think that’s your birthright and I want to help you get there because I’m not interested in feeding poor people, I mean I’ll do this. I’ll spend 49 percent of my time making the kitchen the strongest, baddest program in America, but only if I’m able to spend 51 percent of my time traveling around the country to places like Ithaca engaging people in a dialogue about why.