Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
For the past two decades, Robert Egger fought on the front lines against poverty, hunger and unemployment in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit he founded, D.C. Central Kitchen, provides meals and job training for those who need it in the District. And now Egger is leaving Washington to put the same model to work in Los Angeles. He joins Kojo in the studio for an exit interview about what he accomplished in D.C., and what he hopes to do in California.
- Robert Egger President and Founder, D.C. Central Kitchen, and author of "Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All" (Harper Business)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, behind the Washington region's recent boom days and whether an economic reckoning is on the horizon. But first, a window into a career spent serving the parts of D.C. that never came close to hopping on the gravy train.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRobert Egger started the D.C. Central Kitchen 24 years ago when he recovered the unused food from the inaugural balls for presidents George H.W. Bush and delivered it to shelters feeding D.C.'s homeless population. Since then, his nonprofit has served up millions of meals and provided job training for legions of D.C. residents and become an anchor of sorts in a city that's been evolving at a frenetic pace.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe next chapter of Washington story, however, will take place without Robert Egger here. He's leaving to take on a new challenge fighting poverty, hunger and the way we think about aging in the city of his roots -- Los Angeles. He joins us in studio to reflect on what he learned on the frontlines fighting poverty in the District and where the city is headed in the future. Robert Egger is founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's leaving, as we said, to start a new nonprofit project, the L.A. Kitchen. He's also the author of "Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding for All." He joins us in studio. Good to see you again. Going to miss you.
MR. ROBERT EGGEROh, it's always a pleasure to see you, my handsomest of friends.
NNAMDIThings are coming full circle this week as Washington races to prepare for President Obama's inauguration festivities on Monday because it was in the run-up to President George H.W. Bush's inauguration in 1989 when your career took a permanent turn from one where you dream of owning the greatest nightclub in the world to your official opening of the D.C. Central Kitchen. What problems did you see in the city at that time that made you want to change career tracks so drastically?
EGGERWell, you know, A, it's still service. I've been in service all my life. You know, nightclubs, when you get down to it, I'm trying to usher in this music to get people to a new space, right? So I was kind of blissfully going along, but at the same time watching Mitch Snyder, you know, really raising Cain and doing really interesting provocative kind of street theater to pull people into a larger discussion.
NNAMDIFor those who are not familiar, Mitch Snyder was the creator of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, CCNV. Go ahead, Robert Egger.
EGGERYeah. But he was just one of the city's great kind of, you know, he made sure people knew about the issue. So I was watching him, you know, like anybody. I was walking to work, and you started to see more and more homeless people appear. It was as if they were somehow, you know, duplicating overnight. It was really -- it was very confusing for many people, and I was one of them. And I watched from a distance.
EGGERYou know, I kind of wished somebody would do something about it. But long story short, you know, I volunteered one night, and I realized that the food was being purchased at the Safeway right down the street in Georgetown and restaurant food but not only throwaway food they had great jobs. So I just kind of naively suggested that you could put two together and shorten the line by the very way you serve it.
NNAMDIWell, that naive suggestion developed into 24 years of service with a nonprofit called D.C. Central Kitchen. I've heard you say that prior to that in 1989 there was this urban myth that it was illegal to donate food.
EGGERYou still hear that, surprisingly. You know, one of the exciting parts about my farewell last week was talking again with Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. And in the very early stages of the kitchen, we both confronted that both locally in D.C. but also nationally, trying to say, look, there's about 25 percent, 30 percent of the food we produce every day is thrown away. What are the barriers?
EGGERAnd one was this persistent myth that it was illegal or the Health Department wouldn't allow it. When in fact every state had laws that actually facilitated, it said in effect unless it's due to malicious intent, you know, or reckless, you know, recklessness, you won't be held liable. But he helped really elevate it. And frankly, also the Marriott family, the Marriott family really pushed this very early and said we're based here in D.C. We love this city, but we are -- and we have a national chain, let's work together to develop something we can do here in D.C. but let's also mirror it nationally.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Robert Egger, the number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIThe kitchen and the various projects that have sprung up from it over the years have given you pretty unique window into the changes that have swept through this city during the past two decades or so, Robert, and the things that never change at all. What about the rapid evolution of Washington that has struck you the most in the time you've been at the helm of the D.C. Central Kitchen?
EGGERWell, of course, there's been the kind of subtle changes, and in particularly in my business, it's what either pushes people down or keeps them down. And, you know, I watched when I first started the kitchen, D.C. was a heroin town, you know? And it was pretty much heroin and alcohol was who we first really started training. Then came crack. And crack was an epidemic, still is. But then came welfare reform in 1996.
EGGERAnd you saw women really, you know, told in effect it's time to leave the home and get the skills you need to get a job. Now, it's felons. You know, when you started the three strikes thing, it sounded really good, until you realized that there were going to be thousands of men and women coming home oftentimes after 10 or 20 years. But then there's kind of the big shifts which I think really fascinating is the evolution of volunteering in America.
EGGERYou know, we raised an entire generation doing service, which means that every single university in this town is full, almost 100 percent of the young men and women coming in as freshmen have performed service. And that's a really powerful opportunity in America that I wish the president would see as part of kind of one of our great sources of energy and idealism is this generation coming up.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Robert Egger. He is founder of D.C. Central Kitchen. He's leaving Washington to start a new nonprofit, the L.A. Kitchen. Robert Egger is also the author of "Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding for All." You've tried very hard to bring visibility to local issues. At one point, several years ago, you and your successor, Mike Curtin, went on a hunger strike to protest funding decisions made by the District.
NNAMDII got to digress for a second here because we talked about Mitch Snyder earlier, and Mitch Snyder used to go on hunger strikes and other acts to call attention to things that he felt were wrong in the District. You pointed out that he was very good at calling attention to things. I remember when there was funding required I think a quarter of a million dollars for the building of CCNV, so to speak, or its location in its current location.
NNAMDIAnd Marion Barry was then the mayor of the city, and he decided ultimately to give that money to CCNV. And I remember asking him why he decided, he said, "Well, come on, nobody wants Mitch coming down here to the District building throwing blood all over the place."
EGGERYou know, Mitch knew how to make things happen. But I'll tell you, you know, I would rephrase it because it's really more of a fast, you know, because here's what happened is the city had not put any money into serving the shelters. And we became wildly aware of nutritional content. We wanted to ensure that each meal went out that, you know, was as we would serve our own family. That's always been our motto.
EGGERSo we really started asking the city, and it took the course of a couple of years of being told we'll get to it, we'll get to it. And here was a nonprofit serving all the city shelters, so we set a deadline as any business would. But to be honest, we set it on -- at a time of the month where we knew the shelter -- no one was going to really go hungry that even though we were going to stop service we knew that there were alternatives made.
EGGEREven though we knew there was going to be food served, it seemed wrong to cut service and then go home to my own home and eat dinner. So it was more a sense of solidarity, saying if we're going to cut meals to the shelters, we're going to go along for the same ride. And that's what we did. So -- but, luckily, the city came through, and we got $1 million, and we still consider it one of our great steps forward because now we really can ensure great nutrition.
NNAMDIHere is Larry in Washington, D.C. Larry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LARRYHi, Kojo. First, thank you for your show and as always. And, Robert, thank you so much for your service, not just to this city but your influence across the nation. It seems appropriate that you're heading to the other coast to make a formal link. I just wanted to make a comment. I think one of the things that makes Robert's impact so great and so successful is that he really is looking holistically at Washington, D.C. and the issues that he faces.
LARRYAnd I know the folks who's mainly on the kitchen, but I just wanted to point out that Robert was instrumental in getting the nonprofit Congress founded. He was instrumental in pushing forward the Good Samaritan Act that allows people to donate food. He helped the United Way in its times of trouble. The point is he does much more than what your show allows time to focus for, and I think that's part of what makes him so successful. And, Robert, this is Larry Robertson, all the best to you on the West Coast. We'll miss you.
EGGERThank you, man.
NNAMDIAnd, Larry, I'm really glad you brought that up because when he took a leave of absence, so to speak, from the D.C. Central Kitchen to become chairman of the United Way of the Washington area at a time when it was facing allegations of all kinds of dysfunction, he accepted that at a salary as far I recall that was about 20 percent of what his predecessor was making, and people assumed that at some point he was going to stay in that job and ask for a larger salary, and he didn't. He fixed it and went back to D.C. Central Kitchen, right, Larry?
LARRYThat's absolutely correct.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Larry. He would never have said that himself. But, Robert Egger, a lot of people here in the city remain focus on national and international issues and don't pay a great deal of attention to Washington, D.C. Has that dynamic about Washington changed at all in the time that you spent here? Tom Sherwood, who works with me on "The Politics Hour" here, likes to say that local Washington is only as good as the people who are active in it.
EGGERYeah. And I really want to reiterate, you know, I've -- you and I have talked at length in many different times, but we've both love this city. You know, what I did was it was about D.C. You know, I've always just -- this city has been, you know, I love, love living here. So leaving is really difficult for me, but I just want to reiterate that if I've done anything it's really been driven by the sense of how can I make this city, which has been so good to me, better. But we're talking about...
NNAMDII feel the same way.
EGGERYeah. I get so lost in my love of D.C.
NNAMDIThat have you noticed a change...
NNAMDI...with the people who live here and whether or not they share our affection to the city?
EGGERYeah. You know, well, you know, what's interesting is there was a time when young people when they got married tended to roll out of D.C. And what you're seeing now is a rapid explosion of young people really staying in D.C. And it's interesting to watch the city that you and I grew up in and kind of watch. There was always that that bitter line of demarcation, 16th Street, 14th Street, and that was a hard line. And that line is moving every day with this pace -- a pace that I can't even keep track of.
NNAMDIBefore we get into exactly what you're going to be doing in Los Angeles, how would compare the challenge of confronting the local problems there with what you were up against and have been up against in Washington here all these years?
EGGERWell, the scale is going to be very, very dramatically different. I mean the number of people on the streets of L.A., you know, the issues of mental illness, returning felons, aging population, it's pronounced. And, you know, I don't know, you know, what I really wanted to do is make a big bold statement in L.A. while we really train to build a brand-new organization. But that's really what I'm going out to do is really draw attention to some big issues and hopefully some strong solutions.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that a big part of what you wanted to do in L.A. is change the way that people think about aging and get seniors involved with what you're doing. Why is that so important to you, and how do plan on accomplishing it?
EGGERWell, you know, I met a guy at a party years ago who told me he's a futurist, and I was really intrigued by that term and said, dude, it's just a trend. So I became -- and that's what -- I love trends. What can you see coming and how can you march out to meet it today versus wait for it to come to you. And one thing you can see in a big way is a significant number of older Americans who don't have enough money in the bank to really afford the extra years that science will give them.
EGGERAnd, you know, whether you look at savings patterns, whether you look at the current -- there's a waiting list for Meals on Wheels today in most American cities and the baby boomers haven't even begun to peak yet. So rather than wait for, you know, a predictable tsunami of poor, older people, I want to draw attention not just to how do we feed them, although that's part of what I'm going to do, but fundamentally, how do we value our elders in America? Period. That's what I'm interested. No waste.
NNAMDIYou're going to be accessing food in a different way at the L.A. Kitchen, correct? How is your model going to be different with the direct access to California's farm system and the abundant fruits and vegetables there?
EGGERWell, you know, when we started the kitchen, it was all about restaurants and caterers and hotels, and that business has shifted. And I think, you know, Mike Curtin, the able CEO who is following and really keeping the dream, you know, marching forward, he really has been pioneering this idea of the amount of fruits and vegetables you can get not only free but also at a reduced price.
EGGERSo, for example, our catering company and the projects we're doing for D.C. public schools, we're doing locally sourced cook from scratch meals with fresh, local foods. So that really drew my attention. And, of course, I've been to California many, many times, and I felt a lot of kitchens open up around the country. But nobody was really prepared to take, in effect, a tractor trailer of tomatoes in.
EGGERAnd that's what interest me is how can we -- instead of the old system where it would go from a farm to a food bank to a pantry to a home and you have kind of that cascading decay, I wanted to get up way up at the very front end and say, how can we get all that fresh fruits and vegetables but stabilize it and then be able to either cook with it immediately or store it, freeze it, if you will?
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now to Gerald in Northwest Washington. Gerald, your turn.
GERALDHi. Good morning, Kojo and Robert. I just wanted to say thanks for D.C. Central Kitchen. Over the years, back when -- I met Chapman Todd, who used to run the kitchen, one of the guys, and then there's another guy named Rob who worked there. Every time that I needed some help doing a community event or whatever it was, I could just call and say, look, we just need a few things.
GERALDAnd we would either get something for our prayer breakfast, and it was -- they just made it so easy, so helpful, some pizzas for guys, people in the neighborhood and things. And it was just, you know, so the people in L.A. are really -- they're going to be well-served by the L.A. Central Kitchen. And so I just wanted to say thanks for all the help that D.C. Central Kitchen has done for me.
NNAMDIAnd, Gerald, you worked with Coalition for the Homeless, right?
GERALDWell, I'm on the board of the coalition and also on the board of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
GERALDAll right. OK. All right. Thank you. Bye.
NNAMDIYou want to say anything to Gerald, Robert?
EGGERWell, just thanks, Gerald, because, again, it's a two-way street. And the kitchen -- while we had food, we were anxious to find people in the community that shared our sense of how can we use this food every day to rock this city. And you're one of them, man, so thank you.
NNAMDIAnd here now is Katherine in Bethesda, Md. Katherine, your turn.
KATHERINE EARL SMITHHello, Robert. It's Katherine Earl Smith. How are you, sweetie?
EGGEROh, Katherine. Yeah, I'm great now. Thank you.
SMITHI know. And I just wanted to point out that not only -- amazing national, well, program that is so amazing throughout (word?) and I'm sure it will be amazing not only when you get there, Robert, but also, I think you were really one of the first people looked at nonprofits and said, we need to -- the business. They are a business. You need to -- that way. And you were the first there to (unintelligible) or one of the first. And I think that needs to be pointed out because they...
NNAMDIWell, you're breaking up, Katherine. But you make an important point because one can say how far we have come since then because we now tend to look at nonprofits as businesses when there was a time when we really didn't.
EGGERWell, you know what, when we started kitchen, the idea was, how can we have a highly functional organization? So we always wanted, you know, we've talked to a lot about the food. But we really wanted the organization to be really tight. So whether it was how we tracked our metrics, how we treated out people, you know, again, we didn't want to basically, you know, we made a real commitment a while ago to paying a living wage, you know, starting people at $12.50 an hour with full benefits at the kitchen.
EGGERBut it was surprising to me that after 10, 15, 20 years of making payroll, you know, adding, you know, creating jobs, you were still treated as, well, that's nice, but you're just a nonprofit. And after a while, I realized and I started doing research and I found the nonprofit sector is one of the top three employers in America and is -- actually, 26 percent of the workforce in D.C. works to nonprofits.
NNAMDIA lot of nonprofits become impossible to detach from the personalities who start them. Where did that factor enter your thinking when you began planning to leave?
EGGERWell, you know, Gerald mentioned Chapman Todd, and there's always been a series of people who worked really closely with me. I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses, and I really wanted to always surround myself with incredibly smart people because more and more as I started first helping other cities open kitchens but then speaking more about larger issues, I found myself away from the day to day.
EGGERSo I really always wanted to have a strong, dynamic team. And I think -- when Larry mentioned my sojourn over the United Way, that was really one of the first experiments in saying -- 'cause I literally walked in and told the staff I have to leave. You know, this is a quick advice for you young people in the audience. Never make a career decision after two pitchers of beer because, you know, running the United Way sounded an OK gig during the first pitcher.
EGGERBut, I mean, by the second, I was ready to go. And five days later, I had the gig. And so literally had to roll out of the D.C. Central Kitchen with very little notice, and it soared without me. And so that really is what began, you know, a little bit of a lengthy process but that sense of its time for me to roll out.
NNAMDIWell, it's time for Robert Egger to roll out of this broadcast, too. We have to move on. But I'd like to wish you the best in L.A., and we know that we'll be hearing a lot more about you and from you. Good luck.
EGGERThank you, my handsome friend, and I wish you well.
NNAMDIRobert Egger, the only person who thinks I'm handsome, is the founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen. He is leaving Washington to start a new nonprofit project, the L.A. Kitchen. Robert Egger is the author of "Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, behind the Washington region's recent boom days and whether an economic reckoning is on the horizon. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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