Feed the hungry, then give them the frying pan

John Carlin on how leftovers become a lifeline for the homeless
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At DC Central Kitchen, Washington's biggest food supplier to the homeless, the following delicacies were in stock last week: salmon fillets, spinach and ricotta ravioli, pate de foie gras, Chinese noodles, pepperoni pizza and apple pie. A visit the week before would have revealed an abundance of steak, shrimp and eclairs.

Such is the Christmas fare enjoyed by the unemployed, the drug-addicted, the alcoholic and generally derelict in the capital city of the most affluent society in the history of mankind. Elsewhere in the US the poor will not be so fortunate this festive season. Figures released on Tuesday by the US Conference of Mayors showed the demand for emergency food increased by 16 per cent this year and that 20 per cent of the requests went unfulfilled.

Even as the US enjoys its biggest economic boom in living memory, the poor are going hungrier, and for the 600,000-plus who are homeless, hope is wearing thin. Save, that is, for the beneficiaries of the Ali Baba's Cave of culinary delights that is DC Central Kitchen, a national trail-blazer in the hunger business whose example other cities are aspiring one day to emulate.

DCCK, as the initiates call it, is a non-profit organisation run with the efficiency of a streamlined corporation. It succeeds in doing what every honest government dreams of: it gives the hungry fish, in this case salmon, but also teaches them how to fish. "Welfare to work" is what the politicians call it. Robert Egger, DCCK's executive director, put it this way: "There's more than enough food in this country for everyone to eat, and there's more than enough jobs for people with skills. The key is to organise the system efficiently."

This is how Mr Egger's system works. DCCK is plugged in to a network of 1,000 restaurants, cafeterias, supermarkets, bakeries and caterers happy to hand over their surplus food. Perfectly edible fish, meat, bread and tomatoes which would otherwise be thrown away are collected by a fleet of five refrigerated vehicles, on call 24 hours a day.

The reason why the food is both edible and disposable is that, conveniently for DCCK, America is a nation of spoilt and fussy consumers. A tomato with a blemish, a red pepper with a wrinkle, a banana tainted with the subtlest mark of decay will not sell in the supermarkets.

No less conveniently, America is a land of gross excess. That was how last weekend's steak and shrimp materialised at the DCCK stores. Washington's National Gallery had organised a lavish bash. They had reckoned on receiving 5,000 guests and catered accordingly. But only 2,000 turned up.

Outside the Christmas season the fare tends to be less extravagant, but the procedure is the same. The surplus raw materials arrive and daily the cooks convert them into a vast banquet of carefully balanced hot meals. Here is where the "teach them how to fish and you feed them for life" factor comes in: most of the kitchen staff are homeless, many of them recovered drug addicts, who are learning on the job. DC Central Kitchen runs four 12-week cookery courses a year, each comprising about a dozen homeless students, under the supervision of an experienced chef called Susan Callahan. Before she took on the job 18 months ago she was a teacher at an academy of French cuisine.

"It's a great job for a teacher, because you're with people who badly need and want to learn. It's a great job for a chef because every day brings huge challenges." Before she arrives at work at 7.30 she knows she will have to cook 3,000 meals, but has no idea what the available ingredients are going to be.

One day last week, she discovered that a large consignment of Chinese noodles and broccoli had come in overnight. She looked in one of the kitchen's large walk-in refrigeration rooms for something compatible and decided upon turkey and chicken. So she and her troops set to work and by lunchtime they had rustled up 1,000 meals of Chinese stir fry. Then, discovering that 200 cases of pie shells had come in, and that she had available a large donation of eggs, cheese and milk, she set the team to banging out 2,000 vegetable quiches.

On one memorable occasion an Italian food expo yielded 200 pounds of finest prosciutto and matching quantities of pasta; on another, the Virginia wildlife preservation service gave five deer carcasses, providing for an abundance of venison chilli.

The lasting value of Ms Callahan's cookery classes is that, upon graduation, the students go off and find themselves jobs, in many cases the first proper jobs they have held in their lives.

Zina Hinton is one of her students. She lives in a shelter for the homeless, away from her three children for whom she has hitherto been unable to provide. At DCCK she has learnt not only how to cook but more elemental lessons no one had got around to teaching her before, such as working in a team with other people, or simply turning up for work on time every day.

She has also learnt self-respect and acquired a confidence she never had before. "When I graduate at the start of next year I'm going to get a job," she said, without a hint of self-doubt. "I'll do that for a while, improve my skills, and then I'm going to start my own catering business."

The reason why she knows she will get a job is that, cleverly, Mr Egger has organised things so that once a week an eminent chef from a leading restaurant comes in and gives the students a free cookery lesson. The chefs who visit learn that the students, however troubled their circumstances, are serious, reliable and well versed in the rules of sanitation. They have no hesitation in hiring them later, or recommending them to colleagues.

The whole operation - from the gathering and distribution of the food, to the bulk cooking, to the organisation of the budget - runs like clockwork: very much the mirror of Mr Egger, a fast-talking, square-jawed, no-nonsense operator who began DCCK nine years ago.

No sentimentalist, he runs the place as if it were his own private company. Pity, he says, is not a word in his lexicon. It is not what drives him. "I want results - not posturing, not big talk. We consider ourselves entrepreneurs for the poor. We're taking the idea of feeding people out of the church basement. Sure, we keep the idealism. But above all, we run a smart business. This is food service technology. We don't address hunger. We address the root causes of hunger. We aim to solve hunger."

And there, in this season of plenty, is food for thought.