I recently listened to a presentation by Mike Curtin, Executive Director of DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), as part of a webinar on the Wallace HUFED Center. Mike talked about how, because DCCK’s supply of donated food was decreasing as food companies tightened their inventory controls, the organization had to shift from seeking food donations to finding a more reliable supply of fresh food for their clients.
DCCK started reaching out to local and regional growers and buying surplus produce directly from those growers. In many cases these growers weren’t able to sell all of their products to large food companies, often because the product didn’t fit the uniformity and aesthetic requirements of those companies. Being a creative organization, DCCK was able to take advantage of the surplus food that was unwanted by the industry and began replacing the food products it was buying from wholesale distributors with food products bought directly from the growers.
One outstanding result of this shift is that clients of DC shelters are now eating up to 70% local product in their meals. This beats out even the most local-food-focused retail stores, restaurants and school cafeterias.
Another important result is that DCCK has been able to cut its own food costs dramatically, even as it has increased the quantity of food it’s purchasing each year. Mike showed a chart comparing the cost of purchasing food from a local farmer coop to the cost of purchasing food from Sysco, one of the largest food distributors in the nation. There was a marked difference in the cost of the products between the coop farmer and Sysco, which is ironic since Sysco has built its brand on being the cheapest food service distributor in the industry.
The key difference between DCCK and those who make the argument that healthy food can’t be made available affordably is that DCCK thinks outside of the box of the mainstream food distribution system, while the critics are often embedded within that mainstream food distribution system and are tied to its conventionalities. Thankfully, the approach of People’s Community Market will be much more aligned with DCCK than the mainstream players. And this approach – rooted in real and direct relationships, creativity and genuine effort - will be a key way that PCM will also ensure that West Oakland residents can always find affordable fresh food on the store’s shelves. DCCK has proven that when you get creative and think with a fresh perspective, fresh food becomes easy.