07/02/2012 06:32 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Declaring Our Independence From Poverty and Hunger

The Fourth of July is a celebration of America's independence. But America's battered economy has left more of our neighbors more dependent on public benefits and private charity than we have seen since the Great Depression.

For folks on the left, this widespread hardship indicates a need for extended unemployment benefits, expanded food stamp enrollment, and increased public sector hiring. On the right, the appearance of government largesse creates economic instability, hampers private sector job growth, and does little to transition people from unemployment to stable jobs. While there are principled arguments on both sides of the spectrum, recent national debates have degraded into simplistic screaming over whether the government should spend more or less. From cable news to the halls of congress, there is little meaningful discussion about how to best use the resources we have to promote independence among more of our citizens.

But at DC Central Kitchen, we have these heated discussions every day (and this July 4th, you can imagine how heated a commercial kitchen in the basement of America's largest homeless shelter can get). Twenty-three years ago, we pioneered a model that turned leftover food into balanced meals that we prepared and delivered to shelters, halfway houses, and other nonprofits that served hungry and at-risk clients. But unlike the soup kitchens that everyone grew up with, we used our food to help hungry people become self-sufficient. The agencies that took our meals sent their clients to us, where they would work in our kitchen to prepare those same meals, developing culinary skills and ultimately entering the hospitality industry. This irreverent twist on the old, boring, and dependence-inducing approach to 'feeding the hungry' has since dished out 25 million meals while preparing 1,000 men and women who came to us with histories of homelessness, addiction, and incarceration to find new and meaningful work. Since the recession of 2008, we have trained more than 300 unemployed Americans, 90 percent of whom found employment upon completing our program.

And while big companies are cutting back, this nonprofit is creating good jobs. Since 2010, we have created over 50 living-wage positions by developing new social enterprises, including a school meal program that serves healthy, scratch-cooked breakfasts and lunches to 2,000 low-income D.C. schoolchildren each day. There are many people leading dependent lives today that want to achieve financial self-sufficiency -- and when public, private, and nonprofit actors use existing resources with the right mix of creativity and knowledge, they can.

And so on this Fourth of July, I invite you to declare your independence from the broken systems, boring 'solutions,' and false choices that have polluted our politics and damaged our debates. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we must help our neighbors get jobs together, or assuredly we shall all get jobbed separately.