01/22/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Shortening the Line By the Way We Feed It

By Michael F. Curtin, Jr., CEO, DC Central Kitchen

Maybe you've heard of DC Central Kitchen. You might know that we turn leftover food into 5,000 meals each and every day for Washington, DC's homeless shelters, halfway houses, and nonprofits, saving them millions of dollars a year that they can instead spend on their clients and mission. Feeding folks who are hungry is important work, and we're proud to do it.

But we are not a 'feeding organization.' We aren't happy to serve more meals, year after year. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many hot meals or dry goods we dish out, America's community kitchens and food banks will never feed our way out of hunger.

That's why we try to shorten this city's line of hungry people by the way that we feed it.

More than anything else, we are an empowerment organization. Filling stomachs is fine, but we're far more interested in feeding minds. We recruit the struggling men and women who eat our meals each day at DC's shelters, halfway houses, and treatment programs to enroll in our Culinary Job Training program.

Over the course of fourteen weeks, these 'tough cases' learn to embrace hard work, contribute to their community, and believe in themselves. Most are second or third generation felons, or the latest in a family line of addicts. When they show up in our noisy kitchen, located a few blocks from the US Capitol in the basement of America's largest homeless shelter, they are desperate for a second (or third, or fourth) chance. We seize on that opportunity, working them hard for the duration of our program. Half of the time they are with us is spent in the kitchen, learning skills and refining techniques that will help them get a job in the hospitality industry.

For people with long histories of anti-social behavior, 'hospitality' may not seem like a very good fit. That's why the other half of our program, which we call 'self-empowerment,' has nothing to do with cooking, but giving them the courage and coping mechanisms they need to keep that job and change their lives forever.

Skeptical? I was, at first. But over the years, we've trained nearly 1,100 men and women other people had long since written off as hopeless causes. Since the Great Recession of 2008, 90% of our 370 graduates have found full-time work, and more than 80% have lasted in those positions for more than six months. And for the many ex-offenders we train, our self-empowerment curriculum is a vital tool for staying out of prison. Nationwide, two-thirds of our returning citizens re-offend within three years. Completing our program reduces their likelihood of recidivism by more than 96%.

Our students aren't the only people changed in our kitchen. Every year, more than 14,000 people from across the country and around the world visit us as volunteers. Most assume they will be helping out at a run-of-the-mill soup kitchen. Once they arrive, however, they find themselves working side-by-side with our culinary trainees and our staff -- nearly 70 of whom are graduates of our Culinary Job Training Program -- to slice, dice, chop and roll out those 5,000 meals.

These well-meaning do-gooders figured they would show up, feed a homeless person or ex-con, and leave feeling better about themselves. Instead, they're taking orders and learning lessons from those very types of people (who are holding knives, by the way), and leaving with a new understanding of what poverty, hunger, and unemployment mean on both a human level and a systemic one. When they walk out of our kitchen, they're left asking "Why don't we have one of these in our city?" Or saying, "I guess people can change if given the right mix of opportunity, support, and high expectations."

All this seems pretty simple, and in many ways it is. We use the power of food not just to feed the men and women standing in those lines, but to nourish their minds and spirits so they can help us shorten those lines and feed them no more.

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.