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Robert Egger of the L.A. Kitchen

Robert Egger ucobserver
Photo: L.A. Kitchen

 

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Robert pioneered the model of L.A. Kitchen during his 24 year tenure as the President of the DC Central Kitchen, the country's first "community kitchen," where food donated by hospitality businesses and farms is used to fuel its nationally recognized culinary arts job training program.

Since opening in 1989, the Kitchen (which is a $11 million a year, self-sustaining social enterprise) has produced more than 30 million meals and helped more than 1,500 men and women gain full time employment. The Kitchen operates its own revenue-generating business, Fresh Start Catering, as well as the Campus Kitchens Project, which coordinates similar recycling/meal programs in over 45 colleges or high school based kitchens.

Robert is also the Founder and President of CForward, an advocacy organization that seeks to educate decision makers about the economic role that nonprofits play in the communities that they serve.

Robert's book on the non-profit sector, "Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All," received the 2005 McAdam Book Award for "Best Nonprofit Management Book" by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. He has received numerous awards, including the 2004 James Beard Foundation "Humanitarian of the Year" award.

Q: You've recently opened the L.A. Kitchen to community accolades. Can you tell us a little more about what you're doing there?

Robert: I'm putting everything I've learned over the last 10 years into this effort. What I'm doing in Los Angeles may LA-Kitchen-Food-Square-300x300appear complex, because I'm layering lots of things into this new social business...but actually, the gears of empowerment we've assembled are going to roar.

Here's my premise...food is so much more than gas for the body, and hunger is about more than food. So I want to use food to create a dynamic machine that can both nourish and liberate, through job training and employment. The L.A. Kitchen is a 501 nonprofit, and it uses donated food (from farms, wholesale vendors and other foodservice business) to fuel a job-training program for young men and women aging out of foster care, and older men and women coming home from prison. It's an inter-generational experiment in mentoring. Students work alongside volunteers (also inter-generational) and together they produce super healthy meals for nonprofit partners throughout L.A.

L.A. Kitchen has its own social business -- Strong Food -- which employs grads and uses purchased food (from local farmers) to produce amazing healthy meals for city/county contracts. We're emphasizing contracts to serve older Angelenos, because many people in that age group are going to live much longer than they have money in the bank, and...they will be much more nutritionally sophisticated than previous generations. They'll not only want healthy food, they'll demand it.

So L.A. Kitchen is a social business with many bottom lines. Many groups tout a triple bottom line. That's so basic. Just three impacts seems rather boring to me. I want to show you the real power of food, and for people to see the real depth of a badass social enterprise.

Q: What has influenced your work?

Robert: When I was a young kid between the ages of 8 and 12, giants roamed the earth; Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Shirley Chisholm, Hubert Humphrey, Barbara Jordan, Gloria Steinem...each doing daring work. And there were musicians galore. Everywhere I turned, I heard talk or songs about change, freedom, love, understanding and independence. But I also saw programs that helped people see and own their own power. By the time I was 13, I was fully baptized and ready to rock.

Q: What kinds of philosophies do you encourage in your work?

Robert: In all the businesses I've helped to open (DCCK, Campus Kitchens and now The L.A. Kitchen) I've pushed to see how you can liberate people from the situation they're in. I don't want to perpetuate a notion where people who have a job come serve the poor... everyone needs something, and everybody has something to give.

Too often charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver. I wanted to flip that so that everyone was liberated, empowered, served and needed.

You see...I was a volunteer who went out one night, and I was scared of what I'd encounter. We're all burdened by stupid stereotypes and bigotries. To challenge that, I just employ a side-by-side, community response model...where rich and poor, haves and wanna-haves, old and young... work side by side to create something basic...a decent meal for another person. But it's that simple act, and the process of working together that is the real soul of the models I've built. DCCK's motto was always "Feeding the Soul of the City", because we sought to feed both the physical, and social hunger people have at the same time. It's a solid recipe.

Q: What about your upbringing has influenced your work?

Robert: I was raised in a family of faith. I spent my youth reading stories about loaves and fishes...but I took the story as a kind of magic thing. Then somebody suggested that the miracle could have been that people realized they had enough, and passed it to the next person...that the multitude simply shared.

I rarely talk about this, but a lot of what I do is based on what I grew up hearing and experiencing. I went to church on Sunday but lived in America every day, and I was also strongly influenced by what I understood to be my duty as an American...the help others up, to leave my campsite cleaner than I found it. Both these "duties" led me down the road I'm on.

I'm really not of any community. I was born in Florida but raised in Southern California. My father was in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War era, so we moved all over. I lived in Washington, D.C. for almost 40 years. Coming back to L.A. after all these years returned, makes me feel like a prodigal son of sorts.

I came back here because L.A. is the city where the future comes to happen, and I am an amateur futurist. By that, I mean I am very interested in probability, trends, demographics...and I'm never satisfied with what I see in front in me now. I want to figure out how to see what's coming and not get caught flat-footed. L.A. is the perfect spot to meet the future of my business head on and heart out.

Q: What trends are you seeing?

Robert: The first trend I'm addressing is that the traditional foods that have supplied the charitable sector for decades are drying up. This is key--all donated food represents lost profits. Somebody bought it, cooked it or grew it...and for a lot of different reasons, they couldn't sell it, so they donated it to charity. In this new economy, every business is trying to diminish waste, and that will really impact the food banks, pantries and kitchens in America.

Fruits and vegetables are as the future. Of all the food we waste in America, one half is fruit and produce that is plowed under or thrown out because it is not cosmetically perfect.

But, in my opinion, it's not enough to simply redistribute this precious commodity. More to the point, you have to look at whom you're supporting, and how you can make it relative to their journey, their health...their independence.

This is why we built L.A. Kitchen as a processing hub, so we can squeeze every ounce of opportunity out of every morsel of food we get, and turn it into something healthy, and shelf stable if possible. And most importantly, we want to make sure it complements the needs of the end user, not our schedule.

Which brings me to the second trend...the new face of hunger. Back when pantries were developed, they served able bodied, unemployed men and women. Now, the face of hunger is most likely a single mom with one or even two jobs...or an older person with little or no savings.

The aging boomer population is going to have a profound impact on our country. Everyday....for the next 18 years, 10,000 people will turn 70. The largest concentration of older people living in poverty is in Los Angeles County. The number of people over 65 will double in 10 years. The numbers existing on social security alone will explode. We want to help redefine what senior meals look like, and where they are served. We're committed to using food to get older people out of their homes into more social situations.

We also want to deeply explore the power of food as medicine. We see the potential to partner with educational institutions to experiment with the role fruits and vegetables might play in reducing the impact of Alzheimer's. There are just no limits to what we want to do when it comes to food and community.

Q: You're incredibly connected to a larger, historical vision of your work. How does the past inform what you're doing today?

Robert: There are some big themes. I think about World War II, and how for the first time in the history of the world, an army came home and didn't return to the farm. That's when America left the agri-culture.

Then we took the leftover munitions, and we took out the ammonium nitrate, to make super-fertilizer, which is the backbone of modern industrial agriculture. So in a sense, old munitions became our swords to plowshares.

Back then, people understandably thought that science was going to liberate them from the drudgery of planting, growing and selling food. First with the sons of farmers, then, with the introduction of frozen foods, it seemed that America's women were being liberated, too. As crazy as it sounds...all the things we laugh at today, they were viewed as great advances, because they gave men and women alike something they had hardly ever experienced before...time and freedom.

Suddenly, food that was cheap and plentiful. We rejoiced, never thinking that companies would put private wealth ahead of public health. We trusted. After all, Tang is what astronauts drank. We had new freedom, but we become indentured to salt and fat.

We are now three generations removed from WWII, and we're trying to find our way back to the farm. We now have to re-image the link between industrial and urban agriculture. Not only that, we have to reconnect people again...and re-examine the new agri-culture. This is at the root of my work with food, inclusion and aging....its about forging a new relationship between citizens.

For members of the younger generation, I hope it will also begin a dialogue about success. Will a younger generation equate success with possessions or status...or something else...maybe a good neighbor, friend, husband or citizen? I love this time. The potential-o-meter is off the hook.

Q: Any closing thoughts for our readers?

Robert: My motto is "all food has power, and all people have potential." I hope your readers will let that set in, and let it swirl around their heads. Also...you don't have to choose between doing good and making money...of being a .com, or a .org. You can be both. It won't be easy, but nothing good is easy. So get out there. Don't be afraid to sweat, get dirty, be brave, love daringly, take risks, think openly and give freely. Life is short...so get out there and kick its ass.

Related: Activist Robert Egger's SoCal Return

 

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