Nonprofits in America and elsewhere who work to feed the hungry do amazing work but are they just killing people with kindness? While distributing processed junk food might temporarily fill a belly, it won’t nourish a healthy mind and body. A simple reality exacerbated by economic and political systems that routinely fail to value and properly support nonprofits. In the process perpetuating a toxic cycle of disenfranchisement, and rigid societal structures, which offer no pathways to meaningful change.
Robert Egger, who is my guest today on Inside Ideas, has been tackling these issues for 30-odd years. A nightclub owner turned nonprofit pioneer, Robert is the multi-award winning changemaker who founded the D.C. Central Kitchen in 1989, with a mission to ‘use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities’. Along with the Campus Kitchen Project, and the L.A. Kitchen, which he also founded, they have collectively produced over 40 million meals and helped over 2,000 individuals attain jobs.
Robert is what a disruptor looks like. His work isn’t about filling people up and sending them on their way, it is about first making sure that food is nutritious and more than this, it is about empowering individuals and communities to achieve personal and collective advancement. Which means people coming together over food and talking about how decision making can better work for them.
“Too many non-profits want things to stay the same. But we have been poisoning the poor in the name of feeding them for decades,” he said. “We now have to say: here’s the nutritional bar we won’t cross.”
The award winning author of Begging for Change also wants communities to discuss and inspire the types of systemic change the current models of fundraising and donations are standing in the way of.
“The most powerful ally in fighting hunger is community, not charity,” he said. “If I could do anything right now I would be fascinated to work on creating an intergenerational political alliance around food. Because food is such a unifying tool. And too often food banks view it as gas for the human body: come here and fill up they say, rather than come here and let’s plot.”
By plotting Robert means putting politics on the table. Giving communities a space to discuss how they can elect a generation of people who view food as an essential right, who view nonprofits as essential economic partners.
“These are the kind of things that will diminish the need for charity and elevate the power of community,” he said. “An important economic principle to remember here is we have no profits without nonprofits.”
Robert added: “If you don’t have all the things nonprofits provide you have no vibrancy, or the huge number of services they give a town. They play such a massive economic role in the U.S. Yet we don’t have the same access to capital, we have to rattle a cup and hope a rich person gives us money. We need to access and activate our own power and progress to a more liberating time globally.”
I am delighted to have Robert on today’s show to hear more about how we accelerate towards that liberation.
Robert founded the D.C. Central Kitchen, the Campus Kitchen Project, and the L.A. Kitchen, which have collectively produced over 40 million meals and helped over 2,000 individuals attain jobs. In Washington, he was the founding Chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Nutrition, and Street Sense (Washington’s homeless newspaper). In addition, he is a Founding Board member of The World Central Kitchen with Jose Andres, Robert was also the Co-Convener of the first Nonprofit Congress and the Founder of the CFoward PAC, which worked to help elect people who ran nonprofits. He also wrote the award winning book, Begging for Change. Robert is an international speaker, and he has received dozens of awards over the years for his ideas and work, including being named a Point of Light, an Oprah Angel, Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, and a Washingtonian of the Year. He was also the only direct service providers to appear on the Nonprofit Times list of the Most Powerful & Influential Nonprofit Leaders from 2006-2009. And last but not least, Robert is a 15-gallon blood donor with the American Red Cross.