Global Citizens of America is a new series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.
Robert Egger wants you to know that when it comes to social consciousness and helping people, he’s no one’s guardian angel: “I’m a tequila swilling, F-bomb dropping sinner, but I’m trying.”
Egger is the founder of LA Kitchen in Los Angeles, a culinary organization that rescues cosmetically imperfect food for a training program for people coming out of foster care and incarceration. The affiliated for-profit social business Strong Food hires program graduates, prioritizes serving healthy meals to seniors, and reinvests profits into the training program.
Previously, Egger founded DC Central Kitchen in Washington, DC which operates on the same model. Since its inception in 1988, the “community kitchen” has produced more than 35 million meals and employed 1,500 men and women full time.
In addition to eliminating hunger and food waste, bridging generational gaps is the core of Egger’s work. He aims to engage younger generations and provide opportunities – the LA Kitchen has a volunteer bill of rights which guarantees organizational transparency and promises Egger will listen to new ideas – while constantly innovating to keep seniors physically and socially active – he wants senior centers, which currently serve as “adult day-care,” to be healthy meal distribution centers.
Egger initially dreamed of changing the world with music. Those dreams didn’t come to fruition, but he has brought a do-it-yourself, punk-rock mentality to the realms of equal employment opportunity, nutrition, and ending food waste.
Tell me about LA Kitchen and the other work that you’re doing.
LA Kitchen is part of an ongoing, almost 30-year experiment that I’ve been part of that takes food that would have been thrown away and offers men and women, who often our society undervalues, an opportunity to be part of the solution versus the mere recipients of charity.
But it’s also a social enterprise business, it creates jobs to employ some of the graduates of our job training program. From either a for-profit or a non-profit perspective, we’re fiercely dedicated to the idea of serving really healthy meals with an emphasis now more and more on plant-based meals.
How does it operate? Where do you rescue the food from?
I started the DC Central Kitchen in Washington DC in 1988, and built on that model, and made my bones picking up food from restaurants, hotels, and most importantly caterers. I was up at 2:30 in the morning, every morning, going to the backdoor of every Smithsonian Institute, every federal building picking up food that was unserved after big catered events.
Here in Los Angeles I have access on a year-round basis to the most beautiful and healthiest food ever, and I can get it for free which we use for training and community engagement, and providing free meals to the community. Or we can buy it at a fair market price and then convert it into meals that I can sell to our social business Strong Food, which employs graduates, and the money is reinvested back into the job training program.
I would like to work more directly with farmers and aggregate buyers. To build something from scratch, you really have to deal with proximity – what’s the closest, easiest way? So I located the LA Kitchen in northeast LA, but it’s right down the road from Alameda Street, so you have miles of wholesale produce companies that bring in food from all over California but also around the globe.
How did you get involved with these issues?
I ran night clubs in Washington, DC, and dreamed of changing the world with music. And in the middle of my career of running and booking night clubs, I volunteered once, and I ended up sitting in front of the state department on Virginia Avenue serving people food that was purchased from a very expensive local grocery store to a long line of people standing outside in the rain. And I was doing this from the warmth of a truck. So here I am on the inside of a truck, serving people in the rain and I just looked at it and was like "Wow, how did we get so lost? There’s gotta be a better way."
So with the naivety of many volunteers I just said, "Hey man, I’ve got an idea," and I went home and I wrote a little business plan and I sent it back in saying you can get all these places that have food they hate to throw away, you can just do it professionally.
"I have had massive opportunities that many other people who are much smarter than I am will ever get, so I’ve always been 100% obligated to sharing whatever I have."
But I bumped into a system that had become kind of entrenched and there was a sense of all the reasons it wouldn’t work. At its core, what I’m suggesting is you can do this cheaper, faster, better, stronger, and more justly, yet every group was like, "it won’t work, it won’t work." So, in that classic moment of youth, I just kind of uttered those legendary words, "f*** it, I’ll do it myself," and that became the DC Central Kitchen.
Since then, the businesses I’ve built have made payroll for thirty years, produced about 45 million meals, and helped about 1,600 people get full time jobs. In the industry, there’s been about 60 cities that have done something based on it, and I’m always open source. I have had massive opportunities that many other people who are much smarter than I am will ever get, so I’ve always been 100% obligated to sharing whatever I have.
Why do you try to hire men and women coming out of foster care and older men and women returning from incarceration?
To a certain extent, my entire model’s been built around two things: who’s poor in America and who needs a job in America? When I first started this I was doing homelessness, but it’s the old adage of like, where are all these people coming from? And you realize that you have to go metaphorically upstream where people have fallen into the river.
If you think about it, the younger men and women aging out of foster care, and I hate to paint with a broad brush, but nonetheless, are going to have a very difficult journey. And often time they end up on the street or in the shelter system, or prison, or the sex trade. At the same time, older men and women coming home after long stretches have an equally tough journey and will most likely end up on the street or back in jail. So there’s the idea of creating an intergenerational program.
LA Kitchen is a lot of experiments rolled into one social business. I’m very deeply immersed in the intergenerational aspect. A lot of the food world in America gets so absorbed in the agriculture side of it. I’m interested in the agri-culture. What’s the relationship people had with one another, pre-industrialized food America, and are the elements still there that we can reexplore?
At the core of a lot of that was the idea that everybody had a role to play, and that generations often times worked and learned from one another. That was a big part of almost 12,000 years of agriculture and human development, the idea of shared knowledge. I became mesmerized by that. Could we keep fewer people from entering the streets or the system, and could you do it in way in which two generations work side by side, learning with and from each other? And while they’re learning, we bring food in that would have been thrown away with a big fat emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables here in California.
How can non-profits be more impactful?
If you want to change the food system in America and you go to any conference in America about food, everybody says "we gotta take back the food system." There’s only one way you’re gonna do that, and that’s electing people. And the only way you’re gonna elect somebody is creating an intergenerational bridge. You gotta have an alliance between old and young voters, and one of the areas you can potentially find common ground is food. Whether it’s food justice, labor, environmental, clear labelling, access, there’s so many areas in which you could build alliances between older and younger voters around food.
I think non-profits should be actively engaged in electing mayors in every city in America, who show up on day one fully understanding that non-profits are equal to business when it comes to developing the economic strategy for a city of any size. Flat out, my mantra is no profits without non-profits. In other words, a mayor can’t attract businesses to a town, can’t attract families to live in a town, can’t attract investment to town without arts and culture, education, healthcare, clean air, clean water, and a wide variety of the things that non-profits do. Yet we’ve been told unceremoniously all we’re eligible to get is some of the leftover profit we helped make, and we can’t be engaged in the political process. I say it’s far past time for the non-profit sector to own its economic role in America and work diligently to elect people who show up on day one that see us as great partners.
What are the challenges facing non-profits? How are you moving forward?
Most non-profits, because we have no access to capital or credit or a political role, we have to be reactive. It’s difficult for organizations to see the future and march out to meet it.
Part of what I’m trying to sell also is the idea of a social business. We’re trying to create a model that has powerful impact locally here but can serve as a living breathing example of what social enterprise can do to the very people who are going to need it the most, and that’s mayors.
"There’s no sideline in the game of the Global Citizen. You have to be fully in all the way. So, to me, a Global Citizen is somebody who sees the bigger world as their backyard and tries every day to make it a little bit better for the generation that follows."
There’s an assumption about too many non-profits that the money’s just gonna keep coming in. One of the most interesting experiments in America has been [the millennial] generation. Literally 100 million strong, and virtually everyone single person has done service as a prerequisite for graduating school.
So you have a sector that runs on money and the next generation that’s coming along won’t have the extra money that their parents’ generation had to give to charity. But you also have a culture in which the idea is "my time is my philanthropy." So you have two groups that have two different approaches to problem solving and they’re at odds. And so there’s a desperate need to find that intergenerational alliance that says charity is essential, but at the same time we can’t allow it to become the norm. We have to really be bold enough to try new ideas.
At so many different levels I want to LA Kitchen to be an example of what I think charities in the future could look like. Part charity, part social enterprise, 100% transparency and fully dedicated to not just mimicking the work of the past but boldly trying experiment after experiment after experiment to finally get the job done.
What does the idea of being a Global Citizen mean to you?
It’s the way I was raised. I’m always asked, how’d you go from running night clubs to feeding poor people? A: it’s service; but B: everything I’ve ever done is my entire life is built around the construct of being a Global Citizen.
I was 10 in 1968 and living near Los Angeles when Robert Kennedy came to visit Cesar Chavez who had been on a 25-day fast. It was the year Dr. King was assassinated and, sadly, two months later Robert Kennedy joined him. It was a time of transformative music and brave leaders. Everything that I was witnessing pulled me into this direction of, "you have to be a fully engaged participant." There’s no sideline in the game of the Global Citizen. You have to be fully in all the way.
So, to me, a Global Citizen is somebody who sees the bigger world as their backyard and tries every day to make it a little bit better for the generation that follows.