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10 Questions for D.C. Central Kitchen's Michael F. Curtin, Jr.

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GL: Recently you began a partnership with local farmers to purchase their "unclassified" produce—that is, misshapen or very ripe produce—food that would be usually be thrown away, yet is perfectly delicious. Is this something other community kitchens—and, indeed, home cooks—should do, to bring down their own bills?

MC: Between the meals we do for the community, the meals we do for the schools, and our catering, we're preparing well over 10,000 meals every day; so we do have a bit of a volume advantage over most consumers in terms of purchasing power. We also have a fleet of trucks and an army of people we want to employ to drive those trucks and prepare meals with the food they bring in. What everyone can do, however, is be aware of what is out there and look for creative ways to source it.

When we started this, I assumed there was some waste on independent farms because some of what was produced was aesthetically or geometrically not what consumers had been trained to think they wanted. I had no idea, however, of the magnitude. I've heard numbers as high as 40 percent to 60 percent of what is produced on independent farms doesn't make it off the farm because of cosmetic reasons or lack of a reliable distribution infrastructure. That's just crazy.

The first step we took, and this could apply to anyone, is to reach out to farmers. We asked them what they had that they were having trouble marketing, and how we could work together to solve that problem. For everyday consumers, I'd say doing some legwork like this and developing affordable CSA programs would be a great place to start. Being able to go to the farm and pick stuff up would be a great help, and I'd be shocked if folks didn't find growers who would love to get involved like that.

GL: Would you like to see D.C. Central Kitchen be a model for other community kitchens throughout the country and world? How can we make this happen?

MC: Almost since the beginning, we've considered ourselves an open source of information. We certainly don't have all the answers, but we have a lot of lessons learned, and we are always willing to share. It's pretty rare that a week goes by when we're not on the phone or hosting visitors from around the country and around the world who want to do some version of what we have at the Kitchen. There are probably 50 or 60 cities in the USA that have a program that is modeled, at least in part, after D.C. Central Kitchen.

One of the ways we spread the word is through our volunteers. Every year, we'll host about 14,000 volunteers from around the country and the world. We hope every one of them leaves asking themselves, "Why don't we have one of these in our city?" And then we're here to help them if they want to take the next step. Awareness is huge—helping us spread that is the most helpful thing people can do.

GL: You inspire so many. Who inspires you?

MC: That's very kind, but I really don't think of myself as inspiring others. I do consider myself extremely lucky to have found the Kitchen and to be in a place where everything I've experienced and learned in life can be put to good use. I am also incredibly lucky to be surrounded, and certainly inspired, by men and women who have faced and overcome more hurdles and obstacles than I could ever imagine.

Although it may sound corny, my parents started me on this journey when I was too young to understand what they were doing. As I've gotten smarter, or at least older, I've come to understand what they did and the sacrifices they made, and continue to make, for me and my brothers and sisters and so many others. Living up to their legacy is certainly something that drives me every day.

GL: What will you be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

MC: In so many ways, every day is Thanksgiving at D.C. Central Kitchen. It's hard to imagine a place that is filled with more gratitude than what we see every day. But when that Thursday in November rolls around and we lock the Kitchen doors after all the turkey and trimmings have gone out, I'm thankful that the men and women who work here, who graduated from our program after years of incarceration, addiction, abuse, or time living in shelters, have a place to go to with people they love and who love them to share their own Thanksgiving dinner.

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