DC Central Kitchen

Back in 2017, Katie and I had the opportunity to attend the Maine Hunger Dialogue in Presque Isle Maine where we learned about a variety of universities working to address hunger in their communities. One of the most innovative projects we learned about was the campus kitchen program led by DC Central Kitchen (DCCK). Alexander Justice Moore, who happened to be raised in Bangor, presented on how campus kitchens can recover food from dining halls and utilize the ingredients to create new dishes which are then offered for free to the campus community. What resonated the most was DCCK’s approach to solving complex societal issues with innovative programs. At the time, we were involved in the University of Maine’s food pantry, the Black Bear Exchange, so the information we learned over the course of the weekend provided us with new information to digest and eventually apply to our community projects. 

About a year and a half later, I advised an Alternative Breaks trip to Washington DC. Alternative Breaks is a student run organization which provides students with opportunities to focus on a specific social issue, such as homelessness, food security, animal rights, etc. over the course of the school year. The program culminates in a week long volunteer trip to a new community, where the students immerse themselves in the social issue in order to gain perspective that they can home and better address the social issue in their community. During our stay in Washington DC, we had the opportunity to work a morning shift at DCCK.  

I just loved their approach to addressing societal problems in a one stop shop sort of fashion. All at the same time they are providing folks with professional training opportunities, healthy food for members of the community, paying farmers fair prices, providing volunteer opportunities, and much more!

Shortly after arriving, Alexander, who we had initially met at the Maine Hunger Dialogue, greeted us and welcomed us to the Kitchen. We were then assigned to tasks and before we knew it, we were slicing and dicing all types of produce. I remember the experience being fun, fast, and intense! While not all folks enjoy that type of environment, I loved it and wanted more. Unfortunately, we had only scheduled a four hour shift at the Kitchen, so after eating a meal with the morning kitchen crew, we took off for an afternoon in DC. 

I didn’t know when I would return to DCCK, however I knew I was eager to do so at some point in the future. I just loved their approach to addressing societal problems in a one stop shop sort of fashion. All at the same time they are providing folks with professional training opportunities, healthy food for members of the community, paying farmers fair prices, providing volunteer opportunities, and much more! While the organization is not perfect, it sure has survived the test of time and is currently in its 31st year of existence, including support and volunteerism by a variety of celebrities and politicians such as Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama.  

Our first official stop on the Bean Trail took us to the nation’s capital where we planned to visit our friends Hannah and Blake. Fun fact, Hannah is the friend who introduced the two of us! So basically without her, we never would have met. Since we were in DC for a few days, we decided it would be fun to spend a morning shift at DCCK. So we did just that, thanks to Alex and Jess, who fit us into the full volunteer schedule. 

We were immediately greeted with a smile and a warm gesture to join the other volunteers. We literally got there just in time, as half the group of 34 volunteers had already been assigned tasks. They immediately selected me out of the bunch along with a handful of international students from Auburn University who happened to be on an Alternative Breaks trip. We were given brooms and mops and told to clean the hallways. It was funny, because I had spent all morning preparing to chop vegetables and show off my knife skills. That’s the life of a volunteer though, you never know where you will be needed! All you know is that you are needed and hope that your contribution will help the organization reach its goals.  

Katie on the other hand was selected to fill containers for DCCK’s cornerstore program, which provides fresh produce for folks living in food deserts. I was able to sneak a peek at her a few times, as she placed sliced watermelon and grapes into plastic containers, which were then stamped with a date and price. She had a big smile on her face and I could tell she was enjoying herself as she chatted with the folks around her. It was about then that I was redirected to the dishwashing station. Again, I was left with a sense of laughter as I realized I would not get the chance to work directly with food preparation. 

Just before then I was eyeing two huge batches of BBQ baked beans, which I almost asked the fellow if I could take a turn at stirring them. Minutes later the head dishwasher, a country boy from around Greensboro, North Carolina, directed me on how to clean dishes the DCCK way. I asked him how long he had been working there, and responded with a proud 18 years. We quickly returned to the dishes and tackled them as they piled up. 

Alas, the giant dirty bean dishes made their way to the dish pit and boy was I hoping that I’d get the chance to clean them up. There is something so peaceful and relaxing about doing dishes. It has this uncanny ability to launch oneself into a meditative state where your mind is left to wander in all sorts of directions. Although the feeling can abruptly end when you encounter a greasy, dirty, smelly dish. Nevertheless, I finally got my chance to clean the bean pots, and clean them I did. It was extremely satisfying to clean the bean pots, as it is the final step in the preparation of beans. Soon after, we were all cut loose and served chopped BBQ chicken sandwiches, coleslaw, french fries and those delicious BBQ baked beans. Our shift ended the way all morning shifts end at the Kitchen, with a free meal for those who worked in the Kitchen. 

Just before we left, we were able to catch a few minutes with Jess, the volunteer coordinator specialist, at DCCK. She invited us into the small conference room, and was eager to answer any questions we had for her. We were impressed with her openness and willingness to share intimate stories from her past. She began the interview with a summary about DCCK’s founder, David Eggers, and the early days of the organization. She quickly dived into her personal history and how she got to where she is today. Jess is the prime example of how effective programs can truly make an impact on people and provide them with a new direction to follow. While Jess has encountered a number of trials and tribulations, her unrelenting determination to achieve what she sets her mind to is admirable. Following our interview, Jess sent us home with a special gift. It was a copy of Alexander Justice Moore’s book, “The Food Fighters: DC Central Kitchen’s First Twenty-Five Years on the Front Lines of Hunger and Poverty”. We are truly thankful to everyone at DCCK for the opportunity to work alongside their team and the other volunteers. We’re excited to return and encourage each and every one of you to seek out opportunities similar to the one we had at DCCK.