02/05/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

We Are the Job Creators

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

Lots of smart, good, hard-working people give their time, money, and energy to DC Central Kitchen because they think we're a great charity. We are thrilled that people support us because they feel we are doing the right thing or the good thing, but we really hope people understand that what we are doing is the smart thing.

For too long those of us in the nonprofit sector have been happy to fit ourselves into the charity model - give us your pennies and we'll solve your dollar problems - but we have to be honest and say that that simply isn't getting us to the place we need to be. We may have the heart of a nonprofit, but our brain is all business. In fact, today, we are an $11 million per year business - and our leading product is empowerment. The difference between us and a "regular" business, however, is that business is in it to make money; we're in it to make change.

At DCCK, our social enterprises, which include the production of nearly 5,000 healthy, scratch-cooked school meals each day and a gourmet catering company that generated $1.3 million in revenue last year, are not separate from our social service programs. Instead, they are extensions of our mission. We operate two busy commercial kitchens here in the District of Columbia, staffed almost entirely with graduates of our Culinary Job Training program. The men and women we train come to us after extended stays in prison cells, at drug rehabilitation programs, or on the welfare rolls. First, we help them get their heads right. Next, we give them tangible skills for work in the culinary industry. Finally, we help them find jobs. Many find those jobs at DC Central Kitchen.

Today, 68 graduates of our program work for us. Every new hire starts at a living wage - in DC, that's $12.50 an hour, with 100% paid health benefits, life insurance, paid sick leave and a company matched retirement plan. We didn't start offering these packages because we had lots of money to spare. We did it to model to other employers, nonprofit and for-profit, that they can pay people well, provide great products and services, and still show a profit at the end of the day.

Now, after three years of rapid growth in our social enterprise activities, we have lots of that proof. Our Healthy School Food program is earning month-to-month profits, exceeding student participation targets, and providing schools in low-income DC neighborhoods with higher quality food service than they have ever had. Our catering company saw significant revenue growth in 2012, thanks to our expansion into a new kitchen facility. We've even begun delivering fresh produce and nutritious, handmade snacks to 29 corner stores in Washington's 'food deserts.' In just the fourth quarter of last year, those participating retailers topped $10,000 in sales, showing that the residents of these communities will make healthy choices - they just need the opportunity, knowledge, and means to do so.

At DC Central Kitchen, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on local farm products each year, pay living wages, and train men and women that others have written off as helpless, or even hopeless, for real careers. We don't do these things because they make us feel good. We don't do them because donors tell us to. We do these things because they are the smartest things we can do in service of our community and our common future.

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.