How the LA Kitchen is Creating Community & Changing the Food System
Robert Egger is the ultimate systems thinker. Through the recently launched L.A. Kitchen, he’s tackling the issues of hunger, poverty, food waste, unemployment, and recidivism with one beautifully elegant solution that uses systems thinking to understand the interconnectedness of these disparate problems. Egger has already made his mark on the food system through the DC Central Kitchen, the country’s first community kitchen, which he founded in 1989. The DC Central Kitchen’s model uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to fuel a culinary arts job training program. During his 24 years as president, the DC Central Kitchen blossomed to become an $11 million per year, self-sustaining social enterprise; produced over 26 million meals; and helped 1,000 men and women find full-time employment. With an infectious commitment for shaking the tree and creating true change, he is now using the lessons learned from the DC Central Kitchen to expand his reach to his hometown of Los Angeles. We chatted with this tequila- drinking renegade about his thoughts on the food system and how we can collectively shift the paradigm of the industry for good - and he didn’t disappoint.
What are the biggest issues facing the food system right now? What are the primary sources of these challenges?
Robert Egger: Since the 1960s, large agri/food businesses have employed sophisticated marketing tactics to convince millions of everyday Americans to buy food that is cheap, unhealthy, and unsustainable. In recent decades, they have also turned to electing people to protect their interests and thwart any legislative attempt to give everyday consumers the ability to understand what they are buying. This is why Jamie Oliver rightly ended the first season of his television show “Food Revolution” in front of the US Department of Agriculture, challenging citizens to realize that food policy - what they eat, how much it costs, information about what’s in it - is not driven by science, or the health of citizens, but by profits.
Capitalism is cool, up to the point where we put the health and vitality of our nation at risk. This is why I think, when we talk about food in America, we must also be talking about advocacy, voting, and legislation.
What would you propose as potential solutions that would address the issue of food waste? Do you feel that the community kitchen model you developed in DC and LA could serve as a solution at scale?
RE: There’s an excitement growing about how to reclaim and use the staggering amount of food that is wasted each year simply because it isn’t pretty. But, it’s critical that we don’t see food just as fuel for the body. All of the programs I’ve built or helped open (by being open-source about our work) use food as a tool to empower, uplift, educate, and employ. The key to this is processing food from its simple form (say, a tomato) into something nutritious, ethnically appropriate, and, when possible, shelf stable. So, in the case of a tomato, we use it to teach knife skills to a person in a culinary arts program. Then, that person can teach a volunteer. Together, they can make tomato sauce, gazpacho, or salsa by combining that tomato with other healthy ingredients. That product could save recipient agencies money that they can re-invest in empowerment programs. Catch my drift? We need to use food as a powerful tool for change, not just something we consume to keep us moving.
Are there other innovative approaches to getting fresh, healthy food into food deserts that you find compelling?
RE: I dig the whole corner store conversion, but I’m compelled to keep drilling down until the maximum social impact is revealed. When you work with corner stores, you have to find the store, convince the owner, and retrofit the store if needed. Then you have to get inventory to the store, and hope the owner makes an effort to promote the products. Finally, and this is really important, you have to wonder where the profit you’ve helped make goes - does it stay in the community, or leave? Personally, I don’t dig that much uncertainty.
So I’m interested in developing a franchise model. With a franchise model, programs that aggregate donated or purchased fruits and veggies (like DC Central Kitchen and L.A. Kitchen) could offer people (graduates of the training program, or even students at the local high school) a chance to become small entrepreneurs, selling products in their own communities. All you’d need is a small portion of the profits to replenish your inventory, so you could offer the person running the cart/stand the chance to keep 75 cents out of every dollar of the products that they sell. That way, you get triple the impact - food gets into the community, you give someone the opportunity to own their own little business, and you get an incentivized salesperson. Most importantly, you can help keep the money in the community. Everybody wins. That’s the power of food!
You work at the intersection of the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. What are your thoughts on how to best leverage this intersection?
RE: The key is for the charitable sector, the nonprofits, to move from being service providers to being job creators. Giving away food isn’t fighting hunger. It’s cool, critical, and sadly needed, but truly fighting hunger means creating wages, promoting policies, and helping to elect people who see the power of these ideas we’re discussing. Nonprofits must move past the notion that we cannot be actively engaged in the political process, or that we don’t have a role to play in creating jobs. Think about it - what’s the incentive for a business to hire a felon, a working mom, or a person who needs to help care for an ailing parent, let alone pay a decent wage or provide health care? There isn’t any incentive, which is why we, the nonprofits in America, should see that this is our time to help create those jobs. If you think about it, and I do, our motives aren’t redistributing wealth to investors as much as re-investing it in community. If you combine this with a new generation of mayors who need to keep as much money in the community as possible, this could be a great new era of public-private partnerships that get more people working and keep local economies humming.
What shifts would you like to see happen to the food system over the next ten years?
RE: I’d like to see us get mature about it and move past the romantic side of the discussion so we can get down to the brass tacks of creating a viable economy around the local food system. This is just one of the reasons I’ve chosen to work on the issue of senior hunger. Of course, the need to prepare for the wave of older Americans who will not have enough money in the bank for the extra years science will give them is critical, but if we can connect this need with city and state contracts to provide those meals, and then use the money to buy from local farmers, and then link that purchasing power with similar movements to provide healthy local food in schools, then you’re talking about an economy of scale that will make elected leaders realize the power of what we’re talking about.
I’d also like to work to create a political bridge between the generations around food policy based on what I think will be a unifying principle - access to healthy food. There’s tremendous potential to start electing people who show up on day one understanding the power of what we’re talking about.
Your work addresses a variety of issues, from food waste to unemployment. Do any of these issues feel more insurmountable than the others?
RE: If I were trying to tackle hunger, poverty, food waste, unemployment, and recidivism as individual issues, which is what too many people attempt to do, they would be insurmountable. I believe that they are interconnected, and that you can only address them (at the street level) when you see those connections and build models that use perceived weaknesses as strengths. I’ve always tried to show that the things we view as “part of the problem” are better used as part of the solution. In our case, we take food that’s wasted, and use it to train men and women who are home from prison, exiting foster care, or coming out of rehab. They learn by preparing beautiful meals for the community. When they graduate, they can work for our social business, Strong Food, which uses the food we buy from local farmers to create healthy senior meals, snacks, or products for large institutions that want to include local products in their meals. Through this system, food is recovered, people are trained and employed in jobs that make them feel like they’re contributing to society, fewer people go back to prison, agencies and people get great meals that make them healthier, and the city or county gets a big-ass bang for their contract buck because all that money serves, sustains, and shakes up the community.
What gives you hope for the future?
RE: Tequila. And the growing chorus of friends, colleagues, and engaged citizens who say, “Fuck that!” when told that they can’t make a difference. We can, and we will.
Photos: LA Kitchen