Kitchen Centralizes Meals and Snacks

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The children don’t show up until after 2 p.m. but Lance Smith, after-school coordinator for residents at the Hubbard Place Apartments in Washington, D.C., spends his mornings arranging snacks and freshly prepared meals for the 10 to 15 children who spend their afternoons in the program’s single-room basement center.

Smith used to cook for the children himself, tapping into Hubbard Place’s budget for ingredients to prepare quesadillas and other dishes that the building’s resident services director concedes probably fell short of government-established nutrition standards.

But since last summer, Hubbard Place has had nutritionally balanced meals and snacks delivered five days a week, free of charge.

In a newly renovated 230-unit affordable housing building with an after-school program that offers residents’ children homework tutoring, computer classes and arts and crafts classes, Hubbard Place is one 30 Washington youth-serving agencies that partner with local community kitchen D.C. Central Kitchen for the deliveries.

“A lot of times, this is the only nutritional whole meal that they’ll get during the day,” Smith says. The daily snacks include a fruit, prompting amazement from some children, who had never eaten a fresh strawberry. They knew about that fruit though, Smith says: “They had had strawberry Kool-Aid.”

D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), established in 1989, has long since become the front-line provider of food to those at risk and hungry in the nation’s capital. It provides breakfast for the homeless, recycles 3,000 pounds of food a day from institutional suppliers and others into more than 4,500 meals a day that go to 100 partner agencies – 70 of which serve adults – and trains the formerly homeless and hungry for jobs in professional kitchens.

Formalizing and expanding services to after-school and summer enrichment programs for at-risk youth five years ago, was a logical extension of DCCK’s services. With the D.C. kitchen as a partner, small, community-based after-school programs are able to feed their hungry children, usually at no daily cost.

What makes D.C. Central Kitchen’s program, called “Healthy Returns,” unique is the management help it affords the local after-school providers, from facilities inspections that precede federal visits to smoothing the cumbersome process of reimbursement for a federal program that is available across the country. How does it do what many other programs have failed at?

The beginning

Until five years ago, DCCK made no distinction between its youth- and adult-serving partner agencies. The operation ran the same for everyone. The kitchen:

  •  Relied on donations of leftover food from neighborhood restaurants and catering companies. Food donations in 2009 totaled $1.2 million, based on value per pound, DCCK’s Food Donations Coordinator Stephen Kendall estimates.
  • Combined those ingredient donations with slightly blemished produce trucked in from nearby farms.
  • Purchased supplementary ingredients from nearby stores.
  • Used trained on-site kitchen staff, composed in part of ex-convicts who have graduated from DCCK’s Culinary Job Training, to prepare the assorted food into meals and snacks.
  • Packaged and delivered the meals and snacks, loading them into delivery trucks and sending them onto five different routes across the city.

“In the beginning, we simply serviced everyone. There was no delineation between children’s agencies, shelters, etc.,” says Crystal Nicholas, DCCK’s agency relations coordinator.

“When DCCK began using Avodah [the Jewish service corps] members, the idea was born. The first Avodah member” placed at DCCK “was interested in health and nutrition for children and made it her year’s project to formalize a program through which these underserved children could be sent healthier snacks, learn about nutrition and be introduced to snacks in a new way,” Nicholas said.

The result was the creation of Healthy Returns, the formal umbrella program for DCCK’s partnership with youth-serving agencies – mostly after-school programs. For several years, each successive Avodah corps member would be tasked with running the program. Last summer, Avodah shifted its DCCK responsibilities and Nicholas took over the helm as Healthy Returns director.

The concept was to combine DCCK’s pre-existing food production and delivery model with an emphasis on nutrition. DCCK would provide snacks – usually a grain and a fruit (think, an apple and a granola bar) and/or full dinners, consisting of a fruit, a grain, a vegetable, a protein and milk. DCCK would also teach nutrition classes to interested partners.

Although DCCK did some outreach with local groups, mostly the partners have been added through word of mouth.

That’s the round-about way that April Martin, resident services director at Hubbard Place, learned about Healthy Returns. She used Fresh Start, a separate for-profit venture of DCCK that uses some of its earnings for philanthropic functions, to cater her wedding.

While planning her wedding with Fresh Start, Martin learned she could volunteer at DCCK on Thanksgiving Day. Then, while she was handing out Thanksgiving meals a DCCK employee told Martin about Healthy Returns as an option to feed the children at her day job.

Others, like Chitra Subramanian, deputy director of the Washington, D.C., after-school program MOMIES TLC, which provides culture-based after-school programming for 5- to 12-year-olds, simply heard from a friend at another area nonprofit that she could receive free meals from DCCK.

Asked to recall how her program provided food for its participants before 2005, when DCCK began delivering her snacks, Subramanian stops and laughs. “It’s hard to remember a time before D.C. Central Kitchen,” she says.

“It was just sort of anything that was donated. Before that time, we had to purchase food year-round for our program,” Subramanian says. “That came right out of our budget.”

The Healthy Returns program is at its maximum capacity – servicing programs ranging from Hubbard Place to tutoring services and sexual health centers – with six groups on the waiting list, Nicholas said. Healthy Returns provides meals and snacks to 623 children, and during a recent week delivered to them a total of 3,093 snacks and 1,293 meals.

Hearing about Healthy Returns is actually the simple part. Becoming a partner means meeting, albeit with its help, DCCK’s own stringent requirements.

Inspections

Nicholas is clear: “If I’m going to give you food, I want to know that the money you are saving is going directly toward empowering the children.”

When she gets a phone call from an after-school program interested in signing up for her meals, Nicholas says she can’t hide her skepticism. She has been burned by groups who hounded her for meals but ultimately were incapable of getting their programs to comply with code or proving they serve the people they say they serve.

Not all groups are willing to jump through the hoops necessary to become qualified for government meal or snack reimbursements, and thus, for DCCK deliveries.

Because the majority of Healthy Returns’ funding is channeled from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the D.C. Government’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), there is a lengthy process for an after-school program to become approved as a Healthy Returns partner agency.

The paperwork is the first hurdle a program must clear.

As soon as she is contacted by an interested local agency, Nicholas gets the paperwork going with OSSE. “That lets me know they are very serious about a partnership.” Everyone is serious about wanting the meals, she says, even the groups that are not willing or able to comply with several government-mandated reviews.

Nicholas, DCCK’s only staff member devoted specifically to Healthy Returns, starts early to help eliminate groups that won’t follow through or don’t meet federal requirements. She is wary of drop-in centers that actually do not provide enrichment services for youth and groups that plan to sell the meals to turn a profit.

Sometimes a prospective partner agency is just unaccustomed to the processes DCCK requires its meal recipients to go through in order for it to receive government reimbursement:

  •  A city Department of Health inspection.
  • A city fire department inspection.
  • An OSSE inspection.
  • A USDA inspection.
  • A staff member becomes a certified food protection manager.
  • Receiving at least three site visits a year from the DCCK coordinator. (Nicholas says she actually visits the Healthy Returns partners four or five times a year, sometimes more, if there is a problem with the facility.)
  • Attendance is on par with what is being reported.
  • The program has the capacity to serve the number of youths it says it serves.

Her inspections include ensuring:

  • There is proper refrigeration space.
  • A certified food protection manager is on staff.
  • Portion sizes are adequate.
  • Meals meet USDA nutritional guidelines.

Such a rigorous process raises red flags for many less formal after-school programs unaccustomed to outside agencies combing their sites. “I’m working with a group right now that is terrified of any agency in their facility. They want our snacks and that’s it,” Nicholas says.

Nicholas may sound unsympathetic to the small programs, many of which simply don’t have the resources or staff to get their programs in compliance with the various inspection requirements, but Martin, of the Hubbard Place Apartments, recognizes that Nicholas is a valuable resource.

“D.C. Central Kitchen did a really great job just walking us through and making sure we’re in contact with the right people, making sure we have the right fire inspection,” Martin says. She says she could call Nicholas at any time and just ask about the process, which altogether took Hubbard Place six weeks before it started receiving deliveries.

“It is a rigorous process, because for us we had to show her our schedule – what activities are going on, when the meals start, a list of all the participants,” Martin says. “So you really have to have your program mapped out, but if you have that, that gives her an idea of ways they can support you.”

Subramanian, a five-year veteran of the DCCK paperwork process, says once the paperwork is filled out, it becomes easier each year.

Financials

The funding to make all this possible is complicated.

DCCK’s overall annual budget for its core program – which it calls Food Recycling/Meal Distribution (FR/MD) – is $2 million, roughly $100,000 of which is devoted to Healthy Returns, according to DCCK grants manager Alex Moore.

“Are there extra costs” in starting up Healthy Returns? “Sure,” writes Moore in an e-mail. “But they’re much, much less than if we tried to start Healthy Returns from scratch, with no kitchen, vehicles, or staff in place. As it is, we can provide about 80,000 meals, 100,000 snacks and 90 nutrition education lessons annually with a budget that amounts to about 5 percent of our overall FR/MD one, depending on how you want to carve up staff time between Healthy Returns and FR/MD.”

Moore says a small portion of the Healthy Returns budget was covered with one-year grants from two private foundations this year – the Richard E. and Nancy P. Marriott Foundation and the Dimick Foundation, which combined for about $15,000; a third group, the George Preston Marshall Foundation, has kicked in $10,000 for next year.

The vast majority of the budget, though, comes from the USDA, which provides reimbursement funding for each meal through its Summer Food Service Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP); the money is channeled through the city’s OSSE and then given to DCCK. In fiscal 2010, OSSE reimbursed DCCK more than $63,000 through Summer Food Service funds and more than $27,000 in CACFP funds, according to OSSE spokeswoman Joy Roberson. These totals break down to $3.20 in reimbursement for each lunch or dinner, $1.81 for breakfast and 75 cents per snack through the summer program, and $2.92 per dinner and 74 cents per snack through CACFP during the school year.

To get reimbursed for these programs, meals and snacks must meet USDA nutrition guidelines – the reason for USDA site inspections of the Healthy Returns partner agencies.

Part of Nicholas’ strict regimen also arises from a miscommunication between DCCK and OSSE last year, involving some agencies DCCK had enrolled to receive after-school meals and/or snacks that turned out to be ineligible for funding.

“We ended up paying out of pocket for those agencies while we were waiting on the inspections,” says Lauren Statman, an Avodah corps member who preceded Nicholas as coordinator. “And so the kitchen ended up eating a lot of those costs because we were not able to get them reimbursed for those new pending agencies.”

At the Policy Level

Directors of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger lobbying organization, advocate removing the red tape that prevents the fluid transition of government funding to groups providing food to those in need. They know how frustrating the process can be and appreciate DCCK filling a void in Washington that is also seen in many other communities across the country.

“There are lots of programs that don’t know [CACFP funding] is available,” said Crystal FitzSimons, FRAC’s director of school and out-of-school time programs. “So D.C. Central Kitchen is acting as an umbrella sponsor to make it easy for community-based organizations that may have a difficult time. They’re absorbing a lot of the paperwork and administrative work, which is a great model.”

Alex Ashbrook, director of FRAC’s initiative, D.C. Hunger Solutions, says school-based after-school programs or programs already signed up for the summer meals do not need as much help to receive CACFP reimbursements, because often they have already completed all of the inspections.

“The obstacle is really for the really small programs that have to figure out a way to get food to their sites,” Ashbrook says. “They may not have a kitchen on site, or they may not have enough buying power to operate with a vendor to deliver the food. So the opportunity is really to figure out if there is a sponsoring organization like D.C. Central Kitchen.”

FitzSimons emphasized that as valuable as DCCK is, other types of groups elsewhere in the nation facilitate the process for the smaller after-school programs, such as parks and recreation departments in many areas, and food banks.

CACFP funding is only available in 13 states, but the program will spread to all 50 states under the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Barack Obama last month.

FRAC is developing a best-practices guide for implementing the after-school meals program in all 50 states, and FitzSimons assures after-school programs they can get reimbursed through their own work, and do not necessarily need a facilitator like DCCK.

But for those Healthy Returns partner groups, such a guide will not be necessary. They’ll just call Nicholas.