News / USA

Philanthropist Helps Thousands Cope with Hunger, Unemployment

D.C. Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger says, he does not do charity work -- he empowers people. His organization provides 1.5 million free meals a year, offers job training and partners with local restaurants. But VOA's Daniela Schrier has more with our latest installment of Making a Difference.

Robert Egger speaks with one of the kitchen volunteers responsible for providing meals for local after school programs, shelters, and drug treatment centers.
Robert Egger speaks with one of the kitchen volunteers responsible for providing meals for local after school programs, shelters, and drug treatment centers.

This busy kitchen prepares thousands of meals a day for after school programs, homeless shelters and drug treatment centers across Washington.  But D.C. Central Kitchen founder and President Robert Egger says he has a broader agenda.  "Let's not just feed people, let's liberate people," he says.

Egger says it started 20 years ago when he was in the nightclub business.  One evening, while helping a volunteer group distribute food, he says he was shocked to learn how much it cost.

"I thought, 'Restaurants throw out a mountain of food.  You know someone should get that food and use it.  You could feed more people better food for less money,'" he explains.

So Robert Egger started his own operation to feed the hungry.  He also started a culinary training program to teach job skills to those in need.  On a recent graduation day, Egger says, every student had a job.    

He says the donated restaurant food saves the city of Washington, D.C. $5 million a year that can be used for other programs.

"So the drug treatment program, for example, can get more people in and get them clean and ready for programs like this because we do the meals," says Egger. 

While slicing melons, chef Jerald Thomas explains that he joined the culinary training program after recovering from alcoholism.  Now, 10 years later, he runs the kitchen.

"This is a worldwide problem.  And you look at Robert, how he started DC Central kitchen in 1989,  he started feeding 150 people," he recalls. "Who would have thought now we're feeding 4,500 in 2010."

The effort draws on a lot of volunteers -- 14,000 a year -- who slice and dice, and help out however they are needed.  

Egger urges everyone to look beyond the idea of charity. 

"In America every year, we spend almost $300 billion on charity," notes Egger.  "Yet our prisons are full; there are still people on the street.  There're just as many poor kids as there were 40 years ago.  So while it looks good, sounds good, feels good, it hasn't really broken through."

"I had incarceration, joblessness,"  adds Ellis.

William Ellis has spent most of this day grating carrots.  He is training to be a chef.

"We deal with a lot of things -- from job skills to life skills to coping with addictions," he explains.

Robert Egger says his organization is successful because it upends traditional methods of philanthropy.

"We use food that was thrown away, people our society undervalued, volunteers who wanted to be part of something powerful -- a kitchen that was underutilized -- we just reorganized things that were already here," he says.   

All of this culminates in a healthy meal for those in need, says a worker at the adult education center Living Wages in Washington.  "It's been a great a great support to us to keep this program going."

Robert Egger says the food is working as he intended -- to strengthen bodies and empower minds.

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