In the War on Hunger, His Plate Is Full

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Robert Egger, much-lauded founder of D.C. Central Kitchen and longtime revolutionary in the war against hunger, recently won the food industry's Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award for his humanitarian work. We caught up with him between speeches and nonprofit brainstorming sessions just before his cellphone died somewhere in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania. Whether quoting punk rockers or Gandhi, the 49-year-old former nightclub manager had some provocative things to say about the state of hunger in America today.

-- Tamara Jones

Do 20-somethings give? Is there an age when people start giving?

Both the economy and the attitudes of the younger generation are going to shift. They see their time as philanthropy. I don't think they're going to be satisfied with traditional charity. They're going to want a very different type of experience, one that's born in that personal connection. My daughter, Julia, is 17, and she's beside herself with anxiousness. She so wants to go down to be part of the rebuilding in New Orleans.

Is there a glamour factor to that, too?

This is one of my major concerns, that what we've really kind of devolved into is almost cause-of-the-year, what's popular, who has the best pitch. In the anti-hunger world in which I live, I hate to say this, but I have to compete sometimes with people who want to feed children [to the exclusion of others]. And I hate that. All hunger is wrong. Don't create this kind of caste system in which the public is given choices they don't have to make. The reality is there's more than enough food to feed everyone who's hungry. Look, I feed crack addicts, I feed prostitutes.

Who's where in the caste system that you see emerging right now?

We overemphasize children, quite frankly, in America. You have all these efforts to feed hungry children when the reality is there are probably more hungry seniors in America than there are children. These are men and women who fought World War II. These are men and women who led the civil rights struggle. These are men and women who built our roads and a million other things that we owe them a debt of gratitude for, yet we refuse to even deal with the issue of senior hunger in America. You have all these groups focusing on children, children, children. And with all due respect, we've been putting children first for 40 years and I don't see any indication that that strategy has really worked.

What's different today from when you started doing this nearly 20 years ago?

When I first opened the kitchen, restaurants donated a huge amount of food. Caterers donated a huge amount of food. And they just don't anymore. The science of food service has shifted in just 15 years. . . . At the end of the day, it's efficient, it's smart, and yeah, we shouldn't waste food, but is that the country we want? Do we want to feed leftover food to working women? The reality is, if you had to pick the face of hunger in America, it's a woman with two kids and a steady job, and she is doing everything right, but at $8, $9, $10, even $12 an hour, that's not enough to pay rent, put gas in the car, get shoes for the kids and pay for food. And we know -- we know -- at the end of the month, she's going to come up short. We have to step out of this charity model, and as nonprofits, we have to start being involved in the political discourse. Hunger's not about food. It's so much bigger.

How do you define generosity?

So much of what we do is still about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver. That's the difference between charity and philanthropy. What I'm interested in is the liberation of the receiver. That's how I look at generosity. Generosity isn't giving something so I feel good about myself, although that's okay. I'm always amazed when people come in to volunteer at the kitchen and realize they're having a good time, that it's not ashes and sackcloth.

You talk about bringing your daughter to work feeding the poor from the time she was an infant strapped to your back. Was charity work part of your family life growing up, too?

I was raised in a Catholic family with a high emphasis placed on the traditional charity at the time. It's so funny, because as a kid in Southern California, I raised money . . .

Pagan babies?

That's my point, sister! I went out to raise money to save pagan babies. I sold Christmas seals, and I'd knock on doors and they'd say, "What're you raising money for?" and I say with this big smile on my face, "we're saving pagan babies!" Here's the irony: I worked for this charity that would send money to Bangladesh to save pagan babies. And now, some 30 years later, they're sending back microfinance. Muhammad Yunnis, founder of the Grameen Bank, just won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for lifting 100 million people out of poverty through small loans. That's the difference between charity and change! Now I'm about to take his model of economic empowerment and apply it to D.C. by launching a street-food business that'll rock this city to the core by giving people who graduate from the kitchen's training program a chance to own their own carts.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company