Nonprofit community plays key role in our economy

On January 20th, the DC Central Kitchen celebrated its 21st Anniversary.

Inaugurated on the same day as President George H.W. Bush, the Kitchen has received numerous accolades since opening for providing 4,000 meals per day to area shelters, after school programs, drug clinics and senior centers.

Yet, as lawmakers discuss how to stimulate America’s economy, you can bet that few of them look at the DC Central Kitchen — or any of America’s 1.4 million “non” profits — and see anything more than a wonderful charity … a saintly soup kitchen serving those who have fallen on tough times.

But let’s look at the Kitchen for a moment. Move beyond the obvious emotional appeal of its day-to-day accomplishments, and the moral imperative of compassion, to instead focus on the economic engine that it has become.

On the very same day of our inauguration anniversary, 21 men and women graduated from our 77th culinary job training program. Many of these graduates have prison records or have spent much of their lives on the streets. Yet on graduation day, all but two had secured full-time employment. Based on the Kitchen’s proven retention rates, this class is on track to pump over $225,000 in payroll taxes into the District treasury in 2010. They will join 700 previous graduates who now pay taxes and who have purchased cars, homes, pay rent, buy groceries and care for their children.

During their 12-week training, each class produces over 250,000 meals, saving partner agencies and the city millions in dollars that they would have spent if they had to purchase meals. In turn, these groups had the ability to help more children read, more men and women stay clean and more seniors continue to enjoy productive lives.

The meals that DCCK labors to produce emphasize nutrition, which means that those receiving meals are less likely to need long-term care for diabetes, hypertension, cancer or periodontal diseases, which will also save the District millions in the years to come.

To ensure nutrition, the Kitchen dedicates significant funds to purchasing food from local farmers or other businesses that empower our regional economy. In fact, two local farms wrote to convey their gratitude to the Kitchen, and joyfully conveyed the news that they were in the black in 2009, thanks to our purchases.

Our revenue generating (taxpaying) catering business employs graduates whose prison records all but exclude them from gainful employment. The Kitchen now employs 68 full-time employees. Because the Kitchen generates over 50% of its own income, it can start employees at $13 per hour. All of the Kitchen’s staff receives $9K in benefits, including full healthcare coverage, ongoing education, family leave and a matching retirement savings plan.

Far from a soup kitchen, the Kitchen has shattered the image of the humble, tread-bare charity. Yet, when the president convened the recent panel on job creation, there were no nonprofits like the Kitchen in the room. When the healthcare bill was introduced, nonprofits weren’t in the mix. In fact, few lawmakers view America’s dynamic, entrepreneurial nonprofit sector as anything more than charity. This must change.

Nonprofits in America represent almost 8% of the GNP. Americans donated $300 billion to charities in 2008, and collectively, over 80 million people volunteer annually, including 90% of all college freshmen. This is too great a part of our national economy, and too deep a part of our cultural heritage to ignore any longer.

As programs like the Kitchen prove, America’s nonprofit community must be included in any plans for our country’s future. To ignore the role programs like the DC Central Kitchen play in the U.S. economy is to risk America’s role in the new world economy.

Egger is the founder and president of DC Central Kitchen.

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