Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen, never stops envisioning new ways to attack hunger and food insecurity. His approach to hunger isn’t simply to feed, it’s to empower and strengthen those who are hungry. Above all, his approach aims to build a sense of community so that hunger is everyone’s concern and ending hunger is everyone’s mission.
One of Robert’s most enduring efforts has been the DC Central Kitchen. As the Kitchen’s website explains, “We use food as a tool to strengthen our community.”
Through job training, healthy food distribution, and local farm partnerships, DC Central Kitchen offers path-breaking solutions to poverty, hunger, and poor health.
Since its founding in 1989, DC Central Kitchen has prepared 25 million meals for low-income and at-risk neighbors in Washington, DC. The 5,000 meals the kitchen distributes every day are distributed at little or no cost to 100 nearby homeless shelters, transitional homes, and nonprofit organizations, saving them money and nourishing their clients.
One of the Kitchen’s jewels is the intergenerational Campus Kitchens Project (CKP), which meshes community service for students and with a model approach to relieving hunger. CKP empowers the next generation of leaders to implement innovative models for combating hunger, developing food systems, and helping communities help themselves.
Robert founded the project in 1992, when the graying of America was fast becoming a topic of concern and many schools were taking a renewed interest in service learning. In Robert’s mind, as America aged, a growing number of older adults would be in danger of food insecurity, yet current programs, such as food pantries couldn’t answer the problem. By getting young people involved in service to seniors, CKP could offer a kinder, gentler solution. “It’s a terrific way to help older people who are terrified of the future and who are broke financially and spiritually,” he says. “We
don’t want to just feed people’s stomachs, we want to do it in a way that gives them a reason to live so they want to eat another day. And we want young people to feel good about giving back to their elders.”
Intergenerational by design, CKP operates in 33 schools around the country, partnering with high schools, colleges, and universities to share on-campus kitchen space, recover food from cafeterias, and engage students as volunteers who prepare and deliver meals to the community.
According to Robert, “We fervently believe that this type of intergenerational
program can reveal the power of community to address problems and build bridges between the generations. The sense of being needed bonds people. For example, here in Washington, DC, students at Gonzaga College High School became fast friends with many of the seniors they serve through their campus kitchen. Now, the older adults lock to Gonzaga football and basketball games and are a very vocal cheering section.”
Along with developing strong relationships with older adults, CKP student volunteers learn a wide array of skills through their service work. “In the past, school cafeterias were treated as filling stations where students came to fill up on food then leave. But we believe cafeterias should be a dynamic learning lab,” Robert explains. “By encouraging students to run their own Campus Kitchens, we can help them apply the lessons learned in college classrooms to real-life situations.”
CKP students develop partnerships, plan menus, run cooking shifts, organize drivers, garden, glean, and teach nutrition education to children and families. They keep track of all of the paperwork (to ensure everything’s being done safely), organize fundraisers, develop curriculum, and recruit new students to get involved.
As a result of their service learning, CKP student volunteers are acutely aware of hunger issues and continually look for new ways to end food insecurity. “Their activism can help spark some of the important changes that need to take place throughout our society,” Robert believes. “Currently, federal policies are divided: one for seniors; one for children. If we treat age groups separately, we build false generational divides when we should be building bridges. Hunger affects all ages, so we should gear our federal policies for all ages.”
Robert believes CKP students will lead the way in revamping America’s approach to hunger. They have the experience, they have the skills, and they proven they have the heart to get the job done.
For more stories about hunger and nutrition across the generations, download Hunger and Nutrition in America: What's at Stake for Children, Families and Older Adults