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President's Corner

L.A. Kitchen: Real-Time Innovation at Work

AARP Foundation helps Robert Egger launch another winner

At AARP Foundation, we focus on the four priority areas where our work and legal advocacy will have the greatest impact: hunger, housing, income and isolation. We do this not only because these are the most serious issues millions of struggling older Americans face today, but also because they are so often linked. A lost job, a health crisis or an ill spouse can quickly lead to catastrophic circumstances on many fronts: Income plummets, health insurance disappears, needed repairs go undone and bankruptcy looms.

We know that we can prevent many people 50 and older from falling into a permanent crisis by staying focused and taking immediate action on all four priorities at the same time.
 
This integrated approach is not that common among nonprofits. Many concentrate on a single issue, rather than address the complex and variable circumstances that increasingly affect older individuals and their loved ones. So when we found D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization whose holistic approach demonstrates our vision for addressing the spectrum of needs and challenges facing vulnerable individuals, we sat up and took notice. Then we entered a three-year, million-dollar grant agreement with its visionary founder, Robert Egger, and his new venture, L.A. Kitchen.

Learn more about the L.A. Kitchen grant.

Robert Egger is legendary for his successful programs at D.C. Central Kitchen that not only feed the hungry, but also incorporate far-reaching strategies to help ensure they will never be hungry again. From its start in 1986, Egger involved the community in his efforts, working with the D.C. government to pass a Good Samaritan bill that allowed restaurants and event companies to donate perfectly good food to D.C. Central Kitchen that would otherwise be thrown away. (According to the USDA, America wastes nearly 40 percent of its food supply - enough to feed 49 million people a year if it were saved before it reached the landfills.)
 
Egger understood that treating hunger in a vacuum, without addressing isolation and poverty, was not enough. With homeless people, the first step may well be a hot meal. But it cannot be the last. What the homeless really needed were skills that would enable them to get a job and support themselves.  
 
So Egger started a culinary arts school at D.C. Central Kitchen, where homeless trainees were taught everything kitchen-related, from vegetable chopping to becoming a pastry chef. When they finished their training, Egger went to the community again, asking them for help in finding his culinary graduates a job.
 
In the first year, 80 people finished the classes and found work. Equally important, they found friends, too, among those they had been training with - friendships that eased much of the profound isolation that looms so large in the lives of homeless people.  
 
Once he saw how successful his culinary training program was, Egger thought even bigger. To teach more homeless people, he needed more money. Donations were one method, but in order to be self-sufficient, to keep the flow of money coming in through thick and thin, he needed programs to help D.C. Central Kitchen earn its own money.
 
So he began to work with institutions and organizations in the area that needed healthy, nutritious food: schools, senior centers, homeless shelters, hospitals and the like. He put his new trainees to work, eventually making and delivering 5,000 meals a day to more than 100 nonprofits around the D.C. area. As his trainees obtain outside jobs, newer graduates replace them. Egger then added a catering company and food truck to D.C. Central Kitchen's offerings.
 
As a result, for the past several years D.C. Central Kitchen has generated half of its annual $11 million budget through its own social enterprises. These revenue-generating activities allow D.C. Central Kitchen to create good jobs, amplify the impact of their donors' dollars and be decisive in directing their own resources when new needs and opportunities arise.
 
One such need - and opportunity - was the Millennial Generation's desire to serve their community. Egger, like AARP Foundation, understood how much this generation could help struggling older people. He set up Campus Kitchens at 30 colleges across the country, where students cooked and delivered meals to older neighbors who couldn't always feed themselves. It didn't take long before the students and the seniors got to know - and appreciate - each other.

But after nearly 25 years at D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger was ready for new challenges.  According to Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap, Los Angeles County - where he grew up - has the highest number of food-insecure individuals in the country. Of its 84,000 homeless people per night, nearly one-third of them are 50+. Egger had found his next opportunity: L.A. Kitchen.
 
With AARP Foundation's help, L.A. Kitchen will focus on feeding older people, setting up intergenerational support teams and integrating all of the Foundation's impact areas into its programs to serve low-income 50+ adults. "I don't want to set it up so that people survive," he told the National Journal. "I want to make them fundamentally stronger."   
 
We think our partnership with L.A. Kitchen and Robert Egger will bring real rewards to struggling older people in Los Angeles County. Not only will we help provide them with nutritious food, but we will also share what we know about combatting unemployment among older people to help prepare them for work. We will be fighting food waste and supporting local farmers. In the weeks before L.A. Kitchen opens this year, I have no doubt that AARP Foundation and Robert Egger will develop more new ideas that simultaneously address the problems of hunger, housing, income and isolation among low-income older adults.
 
Finally, I would like to say a special thank you to Maxine Baker and others in the Foundation who have done so much to make this partnership a reality. I applaud their work.

Jo Ann Jenkins is president of AARP Foundation.

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