Photo by David Kiang
“I’m not here to do charity. That’s the last thing I want to do,” asserts the silver-haired man sitting across from me. With a cagey twinkle in his eyes, he firmly reiterates, “I’m here to create jobs. I want to make money for L.A. I want to make L.A. a better, more fun, cooler place to live and work and raise your family.” Such a statement from a local corporate officer would be unremarkable. But in this case the man saying it happens to be Robert Egger—founder and force behind the legendary philanthropic organization D.C. Central Kitchen (D.C.C.K.), which since 1989 has trained the jobless to feed the hunger in our nation’s capital. For his work with D.C.C.K. over the years, he has won awards rang- ing from the James Beard Foundation’s “Humanitarian of the Year” to one of the Non Profit Times’ “50 Most Powerful and Influential Leaders” for four years in a row (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009). He recently moved to Los Angeles to open the L.A. Kitchen and attempt to change the face of philanthropy as we know it.
“Some people in this [charity] business think that in order to be effective you have to be loud and confrontational.” he says wryly. “I’d rather be soft and fucking smart. To me, that’s a faster way to get your point across.”
To Egger, while the underlying causes of hunger may be intricate, the solution is both simple and marketable: “I take food that’s going to be thrown away, I train people for jobs, I feed the city for free and I shorten the line by the way I serve it.” This is how he set up the D.C.C.K., and how he plans to set up its L.A. sister organization.
Egger came to Los Angeles because it is one of the few major cities in this country yet to adopt the open-source model of the D.C. Central Kitchen, and it arguably should have been the first. It is a city of enormous resource in produce, people and wealth. Unfortunately, it is also a city of incredible economic disparity, boasting the largest population of imminently aging poor people in the nation, along with a tepid track record on ex-convict societal reintegration.
As in D.C., Egger plans to train former inmates and soon-to-age-out foster kids; teaching them to cook while feeding the impoverished city population, focusing on the elderly. Here in California, that operation is supplemented with excess produce from California’s abundant Central Valley.
Historically, hunger charities follow a trickle-down model of giving: wealthy companies or individuals give some money to charities so in turn charities can give out some food to the poor. Such a system merely mitigates the underlying need instead of taking steps to eradicate or prevent the need in the first place. With L.A. Kitchen, Egger hopes to turn this paradigm on its head, and put into practice the ubiquitous “teach a man to fish” axiom.
This is essentially the same program Egger honed in D.C., but with a new twist. Here in L.A., he plans to attach a for-profit arm to ideally fully fund his nonprofit activities. Still in the planning stages, this business (tentatively called Strong Food) will simultaneously emancipate the L.A. Kitchen from the traditional charitable fund- raising structure and also allow it to anticipate what Egger sees as the future of charitable donations: principled purchasing.
He is far from alone in trying to find a dynamic way to address a nonprofit issue. Many charities in L.A., such as Homeboy Indus- tries, have successfully created a nonprofit and for-profit symbiosis to more securely underwrite their charitable activities. The future of sustainable nonprofits, as both Eggers and others envision it, lies with consumers choosing to purchase goods from conscientious sources rather than donating a sum of cash outright.
For potential Strong Food customers, this means that with every purchase a patron can support a local farmer, a local foster kid, a local poor and hungry elderly person, and potentially prevent an ex-prisoner from returning to jail (thereby saving money on taxes for the city). Combine all of that goodwill with the fact that the products themselves will be made from locally sourced ingredients, and the advertising practically writes itself.
The quid pro quo of such an arrangement has an undeniable appeal, and other forward-thinking L.A. hunger charities are taking note.
St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, a home delivery meal service organization, has long taken a multifaceted approach to addressing the needs of its elderly clientele. Executive Director Daryl Twerdahl says “You have to be creative with your public presence, most people want to help but you need to capture their attention.” Which is why they’ve done everything from sponsoring food trucks to raise awareness of senior hunger to running pet food drives to help clients feed not only themselves but also their animal companions. St. Vincent Meals on Wheels is also one of the first organizations in Los Angeles to officially partner with L.A. Kitchen.
For more traditional established organizations serving the hunger cause, though, this type of symbiotic approach to charity is an affront to the time-honored trickle-down method. As far as Egger is concerned, how- ever, if an organization isn’t changing to ad- dress a changing need, then it should fail—and good riddance. “You must be adaptable. You must be political. You must be economic. You have to prove what you do.” He says, “It’s not enough to be right. You have to be right AND smart, at the same time.”
L.A. Kitchen is both. By creating a for-profit arm, and by using one societal need (dearth of jobs for the marginalized) to fill another (lack food for the poor) via a wasted resource (excess produce), Egger is rebranding charity as a commodity unto itself. He’s now in the business of ideologically selling his own brand of charity to the city of L.A. And a free self-contained system that profits the city socially and fiscally should be an easy sell.
In changing the conversation from “giving it away” to “helping them get it for themselves,” he also destroys the ammunition of philanthropy’s would-be detractors. There are no freeloaders in this system; everyone contributing to the cause also gets something in return. Of this rebranding, he asks:
“How do you create something so powerful that people are just drawn to it? That they can’t resist its gravitational pull? That’s what we’re after, [and] we hope part of that energy will become an all-L.A. sort of culture.” Herein lies what may be Robert Egger’s greatest challenge in Los Angeles: unifying the far-flung and distinct communities of the greater metropolitan area behind his cause. Trying to pull people out of their neighborhoods and into a cohesive pan-urban identity is an almost insurmountable project in any city, and in L.A. it sounds nearly impossible.
But he’s willing to try. And we should be too.
“This town is rich,” Egger notes, “but that’s only revealed when you work together.” L.A. Kitchen isn’t up and running yet, and when it is, it will likely be located in Downtown L.A. Although this is geographically far from our own defined Westside community, the spirit of Robert Egger’s cause resonates close to home. Hopefully, by this time next year, the L.A. Kitchen will be thriving and counting many of us in L.A. County among its supporters.