The common perception of philanthropy in America is that of the very rich donating money to humanitarian causes through non-profit foundations. But according to a study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, America's middle class contributes 59 percent of all philanthropic dollars. And many believe that motivated individuals have a much greater impact than the corporate model foundations at solving the problems of poverty.
In Washington, DC, just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol building, DC Central Kitchen is giving people a second chance at life. Jerold Thomas came here six years ago. "I used to be an alcoholic addict."
Now Thomas is working there as a chef and training others as well. "We are helping the community, giving people second chances, empowering minds, strengthening bodies, helping people who fell down on their luck by whatever means get back out in mainstream society," he says.
DC Central Kitchen is the brainchild of founder and president Robert Egger, who makes very little money and works out of a small office in the back. Seventeen years ago he came up with the idea when he volunteered with a group that gave food to the homeless. "I kept thinking there must be a better way to do this. The restaurants and the hotels throw away large amounts of food. Wouldn't it be interesting instead of buying food, which is what these groups were doing, if you could get that food and get it to a kitchen? You could feed more people but you could also offer men and women who were outside a chance to get a skill and get a job."
Today, DC Central Kitchen utilizes more than one ton of surplus food each day that would otherwise go to waste, prepares more than 4,000 meals, and provides job training to many who were considered unemployable.
The program has also attracted volunteers from around the country, such as Mary Kate Ruth and her church group from the U.S. state of South Carolina. "We wanted to experience what life is like outside of our small city in South Carolina and see how we can help out in other parts of the nation."
Despite its success, Egger says DC Central Kitchen is not the solution to an economic system, which in his opinion, forces so many into poverty in America, through low wages and lack of health care. "If somebody is working hard and doing everything right, shouldn't they be able to buy enough food and a place to live? So the kitchen, I'm not interested in making a bigger kitchen. I'm interested in the kitchen running effectively while we have to be open but I am desperately interested in making sure we have a conversation about why we are open in the first place."
He is also critical of traditional wealthy philanthropists. "The model of philanthropy is based on Rockefeller, Carnegie, which were big philanthropists, in which you say, 'I'm going to make a lot of money in my life and then somewhere at the end of my life I'm going to give something back to offset the damage I did making a lot of money in my life.' That will never work. It looks good. It sounds good. It even feels good. It will never work."
Egger says when consumers exercise their power and insist that companies provide a living wage and health care benefits to their workers, many non-profit organizations such as DC Central Kitchen will no longer be needed.