02/22/2013 01:09 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Shattering Stereotypes

By Paul Day, Communications Manager, DC Central Kitchen

Each day at DC Central Kitchen, we prepare thousands of meals for hungry and homeless members of our community. This tremendous effort requires the support of dozens of daily volunteers and the hard work of jobless, at-risk men and women enrolling in our Culinary Job Training program.

When volunteers are chopping away in our bustling kitchen, they're working side-by-side with our current culinary students and paid staffers who are graduates of our program -- many of whom came to us with long histories of incarceration, drug addiction, and homelessness.

Stereotypes about "the hungry" and "the needy" are rarely questioned, even by people who want to help them. Perceptions of men and women who have been incarcerated or addicted to drugs are even less informed. These stereotypes are most dangerous when we're working to find jobs for our culinary trainees. While our students are focused on their futures, their pasts can be a major barrier.

Destroying these old and dangerous stereotypes is crucial. What about the idea that a woman can still be homeless while working a full-time job that pays substandard wages? What about the men who have committed crimes that have transformed themselves to serve the community? We're out to challenge the idea that people can't help themselves out of the cycle of dependency. We're out to prove that people can liberate themselves from the soup line and find well-paying work that makes a difference. We're out to demonstrate that with the right opportunities and a lot of hard work, powerful transformations can take place.

Despite these challenges, we've revitalized a lot of stale thinking. We're shattering those stereotypes every day by bringing the community to our kitchen and showing them our unique model of empowerment. We call this experience the "Calculated Epiphany," where folks come to the Kitchen with certain expectations, and leave with a totally different point of view about the people we serve.

We're thinking long-term about challenging those stereotypes. The 5,000 meals we produce each day for local nonprofits would not be possible without the 12,000 volunteers that come through the Kitchen each year. Our volunteers mean much more to us than free labor. We want our volunteers to come away feeling inspired by what they see.

This experience is unlike anything you'll get at a soup kitchen, where there is a barrier between the volunteers and those being served. We purposefully break down those physical and personal barriers to challenge stereotypes. Our volunteers come to us from all over the world and work alongside our culinary students and graduate staffers. Sometimes, our students share their stories. Other times, they just talk about sports. Whatever the subject, the act of interacting promotes mutual understanding, affecting the hearts and minds of all involved.

Ultimately, our volunteers see that, if given the right opportunity, people can make extraordinary changes in their lives. We're taking men and women who were previously dependent on the system and giving them the tools to make their lives better.

This is why we've built a solid program of engaging the local hospitality industry. Every class, we bring chefs from D.C.'s best culinary establishments to the Kitchen to perform cooking demonstrations, participate in events, and serve as mentors to our students. We're building productive relationships with local businesses that recognize the quality of our program and how hard our students have had to work to get through it. We're showing chefs and business leaders that people can turn their lives around. Ultimately, this helps our graduates break through barriers and find stable employment.

As a community organization, we're committed to bringing people to us to learn about our work, to shatter the stereotypes that stand in our way. Politicians talk about fighting 'wars' on poverty, hunger, and drug addiction. What makes us different? We're fighting to win. We're working to change perceptions about what is possible and we're showing that our model of empowerment works.

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