Volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen

Volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen

At The Washington Center, being an engaged member of the community is a critical part of the program. As a result, there is a five hour direct service requirement for all student interns that must be done outside of their internship site.


While many of us essentially "volunteer" every day at our internships, the direct service requirement pushes interns to step out of their comfort zone to engage with an entirely separate charitable organization or initiative. Though I'll admit that I was initially overwhelmed at the thought of doing community service on top of all my other responsibilities, my experiences at the D.C. Central Kitchen quickly changed my mind, and in some ways, my outlook on life.



The D.C. Central Kitchen

In 1989, a young philanthropist by the name of Robert Egger decided that the traditional model of feeding the hungry wasn't good enough. Determined to do more than just provide meals to the homeless, Egger launched the D.C. Central Kitchen despite heavy criticism towards the idea of his social enterprise.


Egger's organization would not only feed the hungry, but provide unemployed adults with the skills and education to pursue a career in food service and culinary arts. This solution follows the old saying, "If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime." At-risk, impoverished adults receive free education while feeding others in need, eventually phasing out of the program with a great way to support themselves in the future.


The D.C. Central Kitchen gets its food and supplies from restaurants across the city, utilizing food waste and transforming it into nutritious, wholesome meals for the homeless across the District. Throughout the 90s, Egger's model inspired over 60 similar kitchens across the nation, as well as over a hundred Campus Kitchen initiatives. The D.C. Central Kitchen also brings healthy food to low-income school children around D.C.


Getting Involved

I'll admit that I procrastinated in completing my direct service requirement for the semester. Since I was juggling my internship, a senior thesis paper/presentation and job-searching, this aspect of my TWC experience faded to the back of my mind. As I worked through the last several weeks of my internship, I considered issues of social concern across the city.


Initially, I intended to volunteer at an LGBTQ+ outreach organization. However, after hearing some of the great stories fellow interns told about the D.C. Central Kitchen, I decided I'd give meal-prep a try. After all, I'd worked at Taco Bell for two years in high school, and at a pizza place during a summer in Columbus. Food insecurity is an issue close to my heart - while I was growing up, I knew scores of families grappling with hunger, wondering where their next meal would come from. Though my small, Midwest community doesn't have a high homeless population, poverty has always been an issue. Even so, I wasn't prepared for the extreme visibility of homelessness in D.C.


Homelessness in the District

As of 2016, D.C. ranked number 6 out of America's major cities for rates of homelessness per 10,000 citizens. Directly impacted by the incredibly high cost of living in the city, homelessness has increased by over 30% over the last 7 years, topped only by New York City (which boasts nearly 8.5 million residents to D.C.'s roughly 600,000). Bridges and sidewalks throughout the District are populated by makeshift homes of tents and blankets.



On my block-and-a-half walk from the Metro to my internship site, I would pass at least five homeless regulars who spent some part of their day asking for food or change. Every day, I felt their gaze, wishing I could do something more to help besides giving the occasional dollar. Before coming to D.C., I'd never seen such a visible homeless presence, and I chided myself for being so oblivious to this very real, very debilitating issue. After all the days of walking past and wishing I could do more, I decided I wanted to contribute in some way to an organization making a big difference in the city.


Pizza Place Deja Vu

Volunteer shifts at the Kitchen occur in three-hour segments, ranging from breakfast to dinner. For my first shift I volunteered for dinner, and for the second I volunteered for lunch. When I first stepped into the bakery, a chef informed me and another young volunteer that we'd be cutting the heads off live chickens, and wanted to know if we had any objections. The other volunteer looked genuinely concerned, and almost looked like he was going to make a run for it. The chef said he would go fetch us rubber aprons and boots, but in the meantime we should get to work measuring out balls of dough.


While the chicken-beheading never occurred, we were tasked with rolling out the dough. Before I started, I wrapped about twenty or so loaves of banana bread in tin foil, which would be sent to local schools the following day. When I came back to roll the dough, another chef told me how great the other volunteer was at this particular job. I asked the volunteer to show me how it was done, while the chef and I patiently watched his demonstration. After he finished the process, the chef coyly stated, "This girl used to work at a pizza place, but good job, man!" The poor guy had been trolled twice already and our shift wasn't even halfway over.



Over the course of my shifts, I met Chef Will. Will has worked at the Kitchen for about seven years, and began his job as a utility person. Certified in the culinary arts, Will put his tremendous baking skills to use by creating the entire bakery room I'd been working in - before, the Kitchen brought in all of its bread instead of baking it fresh. A lifelong vegetarian and dedicated healthy eater, Chef Will experiments with different ways to make nutritious breads for local school kids, replacing saturated fats and sugars with natural ingredients. In addition to his healthy diet, Will told me that he stretches twice a day and meditates often, which explains why he looks half his age!


Throughout the two days I volunteered at the Central Kitchen, I had the opportunity to talk to Chef Will about his life, legacy, and everything from extraterrestrial beings to his love for reading and writing poetry. I earned the nickname "Little One," and met a kindred soul whom I would've never had the opportunity to meet unless I stepped foot into the Kitchen for my direct service. What began as an initially mandated requirement became a truly meaningful moment in my life, and that's something you don't take for granted.


Lasting Impact

At the D.C. Central Kitchen, I rolled dough, wrapped loaves of bread, and mashed a lot of bananas. These things don't seem like they could make a drastic impact, but I got the impression that the Kitchen really relies on the help of volunteers to achieve their mission every day. I was a very small part of just a few meals, which gave me a great deal of personal fulfillment; but looking back at my entire experience, I think I took more from the Kitchen than I gave back. Every employee was exceedingly generous with their praise, no matter how small the contribution was. I got high-fives and fist-bumps for just rolling out dough, but I felt the positive energy all around me. The people who work here really do love giving back to their community, and that passion and dedication really resonated with me. Since I plan to come back to D.C. after my internship, I can say that I will definitely schedule more hours in the Kitchen with Chef Will and every other amazing person who works every day to change lives.


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Read Lydia's previous blog posts

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