Twenty-five years ago, I first walked through the doors of D.C. Central Kitchen. I was a young immigrant cook searching for my place in a new city and in the world. I was expecting to find a run-of-the-mill soup kitchen. What I found instead was an engine of change that challenged conventions I didn’t realize needed breaking. Instead of simply preparing meals, this fearless nonprofit was helping unemployed Washingtonians trade homelessness, incarceration and addiction for real careers in the culinary industry that I loved. I was proud to work shoulder to shoulder with them; it taught me the true value of food as an agent of change and made me the proud Washingtonian I am today.
That day changed my life. After serving as D.C. Central Kitchen’s board chairman for many years, I dedicated myself to carrying the organization’s core ideas across the globe through my own nonprofit, World Central Kitchen. Every hot meal that World Central Kitchen has served in the wake of disasters, every challenge we’ve overcome to reach communities in need of nourishment and hope, is a testament to the model for a 21st-century food organization that D.C. Central Kitchen pioneered.
D.C. Central Kitchen has found a way to provide dignified meals to our city’s homeless shelters every day without fail for 30 years. For the past 12 years, it received $1.56 to $1.72 per meal for the more than 2,000 dishes it prepared and delivered with care each day. I was shocked to learn last month that D.C. Central Kitchen’s meal contract had been rebid and the bulk of it awarded to a for-profit vendor, who will receive millions of dollars more each year than the D.C. Central Kitchen did. I still cannot understand why.
Why would taxpayers be asked to pay between $5 and $7.50 for meals when D.C. Central Kitchen offered scratch-cooked, nutritious meals for a fraction of those sums? Why would this new contract apply outdated and confusing nutrition standards that no qualified dietitian would propose? Why would a nonprofit that pays living wages and full benefits to once-jobless Washingtonians and that created $67 million of economic value and taxpayer savings in the District last year be disadvantaged in a bid against a private business?
Why has no one from the D.C. government or the agency that receives an $80 million annual contract to manage our city’s shelters, including its food contracts, answered any of these questions?
I am troubled by what has happened, and not simply because of what it means for my dear friends at D.C. Central Kitchen. For too long, the District has taken for granted the kitchen’s commitments to quality nutrition, sustainability and good wages. If these are the values we want to see in our local food system, we must take action to ensure that anyone and everyone serving meals to our city’s homeless shelters lives up to them.
In 2010, Ward 3 council member Mary M. Cheh (D) led the charge to improve the quality of school meals through the Healthy Schools Act. Since then, the District has become a hotbed of innovative food policy, as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the D.C. Council and my friend chef Spike Mendelsohn, chairman of the DC Food Policy Council, have worked to bring healthy, local food to more people across the District.
It’s time for us to ensure that our neighbors experiencing homelessness are not left behind.
For this reason, I applaud council members Cheh and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) for introducing the Healthy Shelters Act of 2019, which draws on everything our city has learned in the past decade to ensure that the unacceptable contracting process for shelter meals that has played out in recent months can never happen again. It would require shelter meals to uphold essential standards for promoting good nutrition and purchasing from local farms. It introduces long-overdue measures for transparency and accountability. It invests in healthy environments at the new family shelters opening in all eight wards while improving conditions at existing shelters for homeless adults.
And the act finally calls for placing mission-driven nonprofits on a level playing field with for-profit businesses. Of course we should favor homegrown employers with our own tax dollars whenever possible, but those employers include nonprofits. We must stop ignoring the very real economic value that nonprofits such as D.C. Central Kitchen contribute to our city.
I urge the D.C. Council to take up this bill, schedule a hearing and give this visionary proposal a fair vote as soon as possible. We cannot trust a system that is clearly broken to fix itself. We have a chance to remake that system and use the power of food to uphold our values and improve lives. Let us come together and do just that.