“Social enterprise is like economic buddhism”

Robert Egger

Robert Egger began his journey into food and poverty back in 1989 after volunteering with a food poverty programme that although well intentioned, was largely ineffective. Robert started up DC Central Kitchens a thriving good food, social enterprise was born.

DC Central Kitchens have now produced more than 27 million meals for school children, college students and people in poverty – combating hunger and creating jobs. More recently Robert embarked on a new food poverty journey in Los Angeles setting up LA Kitchens, utilising food waste streams train and employ local people and cater for public services.

Here at Can Cook, we have been inspired by Robert’s Work and earlier this week we caught up with him about the Share Your Lunch campaign.

Can Cook: Robert, thank you for agreeing to chat with us. We love your work..

Robert Egger (RE): Dude (as they say here in California), I’m ALWAYS happy to help…

Can Cook: Given your experience in DC, What was your primary reason for setting up LA Kitchen?

RE: Joe Strummer sang, “you got to grab the future by the face”, which is why I tagged out of DC Central Kitchen (which I founded in 1988), and moved here to open the L.A. Kitchen. It has a lot to do with supply and demand. The era of donated canned, processed and prepared food is coming to an end (it all represents “lost profit”), and fresh fruit and produce is the future. By opening a kitchen here, I have access to millions of pounds of free, or reduced priced products, which will allow us to train folks for jobs, ands engage volunteers, while we produce really healthy, plant based meals for nonprofit partners. And because we also buy products, our social enterprise business can compete for contracts to serve the fastest growing segment of our society that will be experiencing poverty and hunger – our rapidly ageing seniors. That’s the other reason I chose L.A… it is home to the largest concentration of older people in America. So it’s the best place to explore a new model of providing healthy meals, empowerment and respect for our elders, via social enterprise.

Can Cook: The UK is not the USA but the problems and responses grow ever closer; what do you think would make a significant difference to stopping hunger in the USA/UK?

RE: POLICY, not pity. I dig charity, and have spent almost 30 years trying to stretch the boundaries, but we should have been mad advocates for government policies that address wage, housing and jobs.

Can Cook: We advocate a fresh food approach to tackling hunger, what are your views on the fresh v processed debate?

RE: The charitable sector has to own the fact that we’ve been actively poisoning the poor in the name of feeding them. We did it with love in our hearts, but now that we know the harmful effects of this kind of diet, I think we are obliged to change our system. Our entire focus here in L.A. is to tilt heavily towards fresh, plant based meals… for many reasons, the least of which is because we cannot afford to serve meat as much as our shared societies have grown accustomed to. Plus… blemished produce represents a huge supply of food. That said, we must be prepared for more competition for that product, and the need to potentially purchase it, versus have it donated.

Can Cook: We are asking businesses to play a big part in our ‘Share Your Lunch’ campaign, moving beyond social responsibility and into solving problems. What does good business philanthropy look like to you?

RE: Quid Pro Quo, both sides benefit. For years we asked/begged for support, while businesses tried to figure out the easiest way to give, while getting as much as possible in return. At LAK (LA Kitchens), we’re trying to come up with a program that is more a social business than a charity, and one that generates it’s own income stream, to offset our need to fundraise (and act subservient). The more we can create jobs, provide steady income (and a savings plan) for employees and produce healthy meals, while re-investing profits back into the community then the faster people will realise that there’s an alternative to the .com/.org model. Social enterprise is like economic Buddhism, a middle path between the two.

Can Cook: Can you pass on any tips that organisations like us could make use of as we look to push hunger back and feed people well?

RE: The future is for charitable organisations to explore serving more plant based meals, earning their own income and doing MUCH more advocacy. Don’t ever forget, there is “no profit without nonprofits”. No city can function, not can any business thrive in a community without arts and culture, houses of faith, healthcare, education, clean air and water, and that’s the kind of work we do. We need to renegotiate our role, and own our collective strength.