Robert Egger plans to take his mission to feed the hungry coast to coast.
Egger founded the nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen, which has been turning donated food from local businesses into meals for needy children since 1989. The kitchen prepares 5,000 meals a day, which are then delivered to 100 homeless shelters, transitional homes, and other nonprofits. The organization also offers a 14-week job-training program that instructs 25 people at a time in the culinary arts. The students include unemployed, previously incarcerated, underemployed, and homeless adults.
But Egger plans to step down as president of D.C. Central Kitchen at the beginning of 2013 to move across the country to Los Angeles, where he hopes to launch a similar program. He will continue as president of CForward, the political action committee he founded that promotes the economic strength of nonprofits and supports political candidates.
Founders have a hard time leaving the company they started, Egger says, because they are afraid to redefine themselves. His own decision to leave wasn’t easy—he says it took about four years to learn how to move on. “Leaders don’t create followers, they create leaders,” he says. “And I wanted to show that it’s OK to let go.”
Egger, 54, describes the connection between D.C. Central Kitchen and the new L.A. Kitchen as a dotted line. The two are joined at the hip philosophically but will have separate leadership. The D.C. location has provided food mainly for schoolchildren; Egger hopes that the L.A. Kitchen can focus on feeding senior citizens. This new direction springs from his concern for the elderly, which has been growing since he learned in the late 1990s that there was a waiting list for the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers food to seniors and homebound people. He refers to the flood of baby boomers who lost retirement money during the recession as a “silver tsunami” that will increase the number of hungry people to feed. “My attitude is, tick, tick, tick—10,000 people a day turn 66,” he says. “I don’t want to be idle for a moment. I want to roll out of D.C. and roar into L.A. ASAP.”
The L.A. Kitchen will use produce from local farmers and will make either fresh meals or frozen products. Egger doesn’t just want to fill bellies, he wants to fill them with nutritious food, such as fresh salads and healthy shakes. “I don’t want to set it up so that you survive, I want to make you fundamentally stronger,” he says.
Egger’s interest in turning donated food into meals carries over to his wish to find an existing kitchen to renovate in L.A. for the organization. He has already assembled a management team and says he will announce the nonprofit’s $1 million founding partner in December. He hopes that by next summer, L.A. Kitchen will begin recycling unused food from local businesses and start a job-training program in the culinary arts. By the end of next year, Egger also plans to launch a business named Strong Food, which will sell products to food-service companies.
The son of a pilot, Egger spent his childhood moving to different military bases. He lived a few years in Southern California and still considers it home. That connection helped him determine where to move, but he also believes that Los Angeles is ideal because of the abundance of fresh produce and because it’s a large city that will provide a bigger stage for what he hopes will be a transformative nonprofit.
Egger isn’t your typical nonprofit president. He calls people “dude” and says he wants L.A. Kitchen to “be a party.” And although his tendency to wear black could be seen as mimicking the late Steve Jobs, it is actually a remnant of his first profession. Egger was pursuing his dream of owning a nightclub when he and his wife spent an evening volunteering with a local church that purchased food to distribute to the poor. That night was the springboard for his idea of recycling food from local businesses instead of buying meals from stores. He launched D.C. Central Kitchen in 1989, with the kitchen’s first major food recovery coming from donations from the inaugural party of President George H.W. Bush. Egger, who is a popular speaker, also authored the book Begging for Change about his experience in the nonprofit world.
It isn’t only those in need Egger hopes to help when he moves to Los Angeles. He says that volunteers are searching for something as well: a place to belong.
“There’s a tremendous hunger in America,” he says. “People are truly looking for something to make them feel like they’re part of a solution.”
This article appears in the November 29, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.