‘We don't have another day to figure this out’ – Mike Curtin, DC Central Kitchen

There's no guide to steering a social enterprise through a global pandemic. How do you shore up cash? How do you keep your customers on side? How do you reassure and guide your team, keep everyone healthy, and stay semi-sane yourself? This week's voice from the frontline comes from Washington DC, where DC Central Kitchen – which addresses hunger and poverty by training out-of-work adults for careers in the food business, and by serving meals to schools – has just achieved a 'tremendous overhaul' of the business. CEO Mike Curtin tells us how they pulled it off, what his real worries are for the future – and why his long bike rides are more important than ever.

“It’s really a scary time for folks that are living on the margins. Our social safety net is so fragile and stretched so thin as it is, when you put extra stress on it, it just shows how weak that system really is. 

The first thing that we did, in early March, was stop volunteers from coming into the kitchen – which was a really, really difficult decision. Volunteers have been part of our operation since the very first day 31 years ago. We have about 16,000 a year and they are part of our community meal production, whether for homeless shelters, transitional housing, or victims of abuse. They are an integral part of what we do – not only practically, but philosophically. 

We also realised that we didn't want to put our students at risk, so we put our courses and training programmes on hiatus. 

Our school food business counts for a little over $6m in revenue – and about 70 or 80 jobs

And then in mid-March, we anticipated the schools shutting down [schools in Washington DC were told to close on 16 March]. Our largest social enterprise is our school food business. That counts for a significant amount of revenue – a little over $6m – and about 70 or 80 jobs. So as those revenues dropped, we had to figure out how to redeploy those individuals. On the other side of that, the schools where we’re operating are in the most economically marginalised areas of our city. Many of the children that we feed, if they don't eat in school, they're not eating. We had to figure out how we're getting food to them. So we're now operating mobile feeding sites at five of our schools and nine new mobile feeding sites. We’ve been able to redeploy some of our staff to this work. 

It was a tremendous, tremendous overhaul. The way we do all our food is completely different now. Until the middle of March, all the meals we served, whether in shelters or community partners or in schools, people would go through a serving line as you would in a cafeteria. Now everything is on in a separate tray, like an aeroplane meal – but much bigger and nicer! 

But this system takes up a huge amount of extra labour. It's also extra equipment for delivery, it's more trucks because there's more product going to each space. We've been converting spaces and breaking up shifts. So the ripples have significant implications across the whole production chain as well as the supply chain.

If we don't do our job today, people go hungry. We don't have another day to figure this out 

The kitchen has always been a large, moving chess board. And it's just become a bigger, multidimensional one. Without being innovative and flexible and nimble we're not going to make it – and that's in the best of times. We know that we're going to have to change to survive, and to do our job. And if we don't do our job today, people go hungry. It's really that simple. So we don't have another day to figure this out. 

Living with uncertainty

Even though we’ve faced issues like this before – floods or hurricanes or blizzards – we knew there was an end. When the snow melts, you know what's underneath it. But [with this crisis] we don't know what that future is going to look like. That's the level of uncertainty. 

People used to tell me: ‘What doesn't kill you makes you stronger’ – basically, if it doesn't kill you, it's going to give you more character. And I would say, ‘I don't need any more character, I've got plenty’. I sort of feel like that's the point where we are now. We have plenty of character, but we're going to really need to focus this character into the future. For years we were talking about doing individual meals and I think coming out on the other side of this, we’re going to say, ‘Wow, look what we did’. With a little more planning and a little more thought, imagine what's possible. 

The community has been unbelievable. Individuals, corporations, foundations have really stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We get it, how can we help?’ It's given us the flexibility to make sure that we can keep people on payroll as we develop new systems and figure out exactly where people are going to be placed. 

Our revenue is certainly going to be cut significantly. But other opportunities are coming to us. So it’s certainly not ideal, but it's okay. 

I think the bigger concern is the longer horizon. We haven't even had the time to focus on some of our pay for performance funding. Most of this is government funding and is based on meeting certain deliverables based around graduation of our students, job placement, and retention. We are certainly not going to be graduating individuals, and we're not going to be placing individuals in jobs as restaurants are closed. So it's going to be an interesting conversation to see how those funders will deal with that and how we're going to rework our relationships and agreements. I have all the faith in the world that that will happen. Certainly everyone understands that this is well beyond the control of any of us. 

One of the things that really concerns us is, when we get through this – and we will – how many jobs are going to be available for those we’ve trained for jobs in the hospitality industry? We’re going to be dealing with the long-term ripple effects for quite some time.

So I think, even more than usual, every decision that we make now we have to make with a longer horizon. We have to stay in the moment, but we can't forget the future.

A scary time

I have been in awe of our staff. It's been remarkable to me to see that there's been no hanging of heads, no wringing of hands, no asking why. Just this incredible recognition of a job to do, and the need to do it. 

But at the same time, it is terrifying. This is a scary time. Rightly so, there's a tremendous amount of focus on folks on the front lines. But I'm also worried about our staff who've been forced to stay at home and are isolated that way. I think the mental health of people through this crisis is going to be really important. We'd be very foolish not to think about it now. We can't pretend that what's happening now is not traumatic and does not scratch open scars that exist in all of us.

We'd be very foolish not to think about mental health… We can't pretend that what's happening is not traumatic

To be very honest with you, I'm all over the place. It’s only over the last couple years that I've felt healthier in terms of my own physical exercise and mental wellbeing. So I've been very mindful now about taking long walks and doing long bike rides. I find reading alone is a meditation and a place where I can lose myself." 

Mike Curtin was speaking to Sasha Gallick. Read more about DC Central Kitchen

Header photo: DC Central Kitchen staff before lockdown at the DC Central Kitchen Cafe in Ward 8 (credit: DC Central Kitchen).

Check back soon for more stories from the frontline of running a social business through the Covid-19 crisis. If you'd like to share yours, email us at news@pioneerspost.com