02/08/2013 10:38 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Serving Up Second Chances

By Paul Day, Communications Manager, DC Central Kitchen

The future of America's economy depends on job training. At DC Central Kitchen, we enroll unemployed, seriously at-risk people who have nowhere else to turn, and give these men and women a second chance to work their way into a job and a better life for themselves and their families.

Over the past 24 years, our intense three-month Culinary Job Training program has trained nearly 1,100 of these 'tough cases.' With each success story, our students prove that people who were once dependent on the system can become independent, contributing members of society.

At first, the idea of graduating from our Culinary Job Training program looks pretty daunting to our students, many who are recently out of prison and are facing a gauntlet of other issues including drug addiction, learning disabilities, and even mental health problems. Taking on these challenges, and then taking them down, makes it much sweeter when they finally complete the program.

Each year, about three-quarters of our students come to us with criminal records. There are some offenses that are too severe even for our forgiving kitchen -- but we're proud to provide a space where many people who have made bad choices and done bad things can recommit their lives to something better. At DC Central Kitchen, getting out of the trap of prison and poverty starts with giving back.

For the 14 weeks they spend in our Kitchen, our trainees are deeply involved in our daily effort to provide 5,000 meals to hungry and at-risk residents of Washington, D.C. It turns out that giving back can be addictive. Many of our graduates end up working for us -- either in food service, or in other parts of our organization. In 2012, 68 employees were graduates, 13 of which were hired in that year.

The numbers behind our efforts are real and meaningful. Our current class of 25 trainees -- the 91st class to come through our kitchen -- has combined to spend 167 years in prison. When you add up what they've cost this community in incarceration expenses, post-release supervision, drug treatment, and halfway hour costs, our taxpayers have shelled out more than $6.9 million to keep these people off the streets. For approximately $150,000, we can get these men and women working. People who complete our program are 96 percent less likely to return to prison than the average ex-offender, and each annual crop of DCCK graduates adds $220,000 in new payroll taxes to D.C.'s coffers each year.

Behind these impressive numbers are real people who are changing their lives in our kitchen.

Incarcerated for 10 years, Michael's parole officer told him about DC Central Kitchen's Culinary Job Training program. Upon graduating, Michael found mentors in other graduates who were staffers, such as Dawain and Chef Jerald. They provided living, breathing proof of the power of our process. They inspired Michael to succeed. Now Michael is serving as our own Production Supervisor and recently graduated from the Art Institute of Washington with a Bachelors in the Culinary Arts.

"When you're incarcerated, every day is serious," says Henry, who spent over 50 years in and out of institutions, beginning when he was 15 years old. After his release from prison in 2011, Henry discovered our program, completed it, and got his first real job at D.C. Central Kitchen. A few months ago, he signed the lease for his very first apartment. Henry replaced prison with a positive attitude. "I think everything's going to be better. Things will change, but the inspiration I got here, I'm keeping that. I got a smile on my face."

One of our favorite stories is William, a Class 81 graduate who spent 17 years in prison before coming to us. William heads up a meal production shift at DC Central Kitchen and takes every opportunity to tell his story to volunteers, visitors, and anyone skeptical about what happens here at our headquarters. "I have a second chance now," he says. "I had a chance to work other places after graduation from the program but I decided to stay here because giving back is really what I want to do."

Every meal we serve comes with a message of a second chance. We don't promise that we can fix anyone, but our model is designed to help men and women who have made mistakes get back on track. A job can provide more than money. At DC Central Kitchen, we give our neighbors who have cost this community so much a chance to turn their lives around through meaningful, dignified work.

You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.

Learn more about DC Central Kitchen. Visit our website at