Culinary job training program gives people, 'ugly' produce second chance

D.C. Central Kitchen's Culinary Job Training Program as graduated its 100th class as the program celebrates its 25th year of existence. The program gives formerly-incarcerated men and women an opportunity to turn their lives around.

Courtesy of D.C. Central Kitchen
Participants in D.C. Central Kitchen's Culinary Job Training Program work together. The program gives formerly-incarcerated men and women an opportunity to turn their lives around.

On July 10th, D.C. Central Kitchen celebrated its 100th graduating class of the phenomenal and innovative Culinary Job Training Program. Now in its 25th year of existence, the program has educated 1,500 graduates, giving produce and people a beautiful second chance. When it comes to all the companies, organizations, and campaigns out there working with “ugly” produce, we should all strive to be more like D.C. Central Kitchen.

Why “ugly” produce? Well, as D.C. Central Kitchen CEO Mike Curtin says, “It all looks and tastes the same when you cut it up.” And best of all, “ugly” produce can be had at a discount. This is because, as Curtin has found, up to 40­­—60 percent of local produce is “ugly” and would be wasted on the small farms they work with because of the strict cosmetic standards of large grocery chains. Working with produce at D.C. Central Kitchen isn’t a new trend either, as they have been purchasing produce seconds and thirds, otherwise known as “ugly” produce, since 2008!

D.C. Central Kitchen has also been working with gleaning groups for over 15 years to source produce for the Culinary Training Program. Gleaning groups are those that save perfectly fresh, nutritious, and delicious (but cosmetically different or “ugly”) produce from being wasted on farms. So what does D.C. Central Kitchen do with all of their “ugly” produce? In addition to feeding 1.8 million meals a year to those in need in the Washington, D.C. area (with mostly recovered produce), they feed 1.1 million tasty and nutritious meals to children at 10 local grade schools (with purchased produce) each year, Curtin said.

The organization also has a Healthy Corners Program which provides fresh but less than perfect produce, at a discount, to 70 corner stores and markets in under-served areas. Not bad for an organization that’s working with co-called unwanted produce, right?  Well it doesn’t stop there, as the social and economic impacts of D.C. Central Kitchen are staggering. Just imagine this snapshot: since the 2008 recession, the Culinary Job Training Program has graduated 321 formerly-incarcerated men and women.

This is far from the norm for ex-offenders, as D.C. Central Kitchen points out “While recidivism ranges between 45 percent and 68 percent nationwide, just 2 percent of our trainees re-offend.” Graduates have also earned over US$8.5 million in wages while the Culinary Program has cost D.C. Central Kitchen only US$2.2 million. Prior to going through the Program, those 321 graduates had accumulated US$76 million in incarceration costs. Doesn’t it seem like a no brainer to fund these miraculous, life-changing programs? As I learned in The Food Fighters: DC Central Kitchen’s First Twenty-Five Years on the Front Lines of Hunger and Poverty, it has unfortunately never been that easy.

D.C. Central Kitchen, and the 60 other kitchens with Culinary Job Training Programs modeled after D.C., are always fighting (and sometimes fasting, as I found out in the book) to keep programs funded. So if you have the time or resources, please click here to get involved and volunteer or donate to help their programs and impact continue and hopefully grow. There are plenty of additional ways D.C. Central Kitchen would like to give produce and people a second chance, and in the process employ more folks in their amazing programs. These programs need our support for more of their amazing contributions to society because beautiful things can come from “ugly” produce.

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