L.A. Kitchen founder-president Robert Egger

The pioneering creator of “community kitchens” describes how he plans to model the concept at L.A. Kitchen.

After 24 years at the helm of the D.C. Central Kitchen, Robert Egger is bringing his model for America's first "community kitchen" to L.A. He pioneered the concept of using food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to fuel a nationally recognized culinary arts job training program. The self-sustaining Kitchen is a $10 million a year operation that's produced over 26 million meals and helped 1,000 men and women gain full-time employment. Egger speaks globally on hunger, sustainability and nonprofit political engagement and also writes blogs and editorials to share his ideas about the nonprofit sector and the future of America.


Tavis: Robert Egger is someone who looks at a problem and immediately decides to do something about it. He started D.C. Central Kitchen, the first community kitchen in the country, more than two decades ago. So far, it has provided more than 25 million meals to the hungry and trained more than 1,000 people who’ve gone on to find good jobs in the food industry. Dozens of cities have followed that model and now Egger is expanding that concept here to Los Angeles. Robert, good to have you on this program.

Robert Egger: Pleasure, man.

Tavis: Welcome to the west coast.

Egger: Pleasure to be back. I grew up out here.

Tavis: Are you from California?

Egger: Well, my father was in the service, so we grew up here in the 60s before moving to D.C.

Tavis: Oh, moving around, yeah, yeah. What branch?

Egger: Marines.

Tavis: Marines.

Egger: He was a Marine Corps pilot.

Tavis: Yeah. So you moved around a lot.

Egger: We did. He was in Vietnam three times, so we were here.

Tavis: Here most of the time.

Egger: Yep.

Tavis: My father was in the Air Force, so we moved just a couple of times.

Egger: That’s why we get along.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, we do get along [laugh]. You know, it’s funny. We didn’t move around as much as most military brats, most military kids. There were 10 kids in my family.

Egger: Oh, get out of here!

Tavis: It was economic hardship to move that many times, so we didn’t move around.

Egger: Right. You were a division all by yourself [laugh].

Tavis: Exactly, or pretty much [laugh]. So tell me about the D.C. Central Kitchen. I’ve obviously been there and been honored to spend time with you and your staff and, most importantly, the people who you serve who make up the staff in the Kitchen. But tell me how this concept came to be 20 years ago?

Egger: Well, I was out serving people one night in the rain outside the State Department. We were serving food that was purchased from an expensive grocery store. Again, the people lined up in the rain waiting for this truck night after night after night. At one level, it was my first volunteer experience and a lot of the stereotypes I had melted away.

But I was just dogged by the reality. I’m up in the warm truck and the people we were “serving” were outside in the rain. So it’s the first time I got kind of a sense of the charity model which is about the redemption of the giver versus the liberation of the receiver, so I just wanted to flip that around.

So I came back with a little business plan based on FedEx saying, in effect, if you get the restaurants, the hotels, the hospitals, farmers, to send that food they don’t want to throw away, but they don’t know what to do with at the end of the night, you can feed more people better food for less money.

But if you bring people in out of the rain and let them be part of the solution and you job trainee, you can shorten the line by the way you serve it and then repay people who gave you the food with entry-level people to help make more money. Everybody would win, but I was told it wouldn’t work time and time again.

I got to the point where I figured, well, it’s not that hard. It’s food service 101. So I figured if they won’t do it, I’ll do it and then I’ll go back to running nightclubs, which was my chosen field. But here we sit almost 25 years later.

Tavis: Well, you’re in L.A. now, the city of nightclubs.

Egger: Yep, yep.

Tavis: So who knows? Maybe you’ll do both in L.A. I want to go back to this charity model that you mentioned a moment ago because it’s such a powerful maxim and you went right past it so fast. I want to just ask you to slow down and go back to that charity model, repeat what it is and how you have tried to flip it.

Egger: Again, it’s about the redemption of the giver versus the liberation of the receiver.

Tavis: The redemption of the giver versus the liberation of the receiver.

Egger: Right, right. And to me, that’s the flaw. It’s well-intended, historic, all faiths treasure it. But, again, as long as it’s about I give you something so you can stay where you’re at and I get to go home and sleep good at night, it’ll never work. So I became interested in a model that, if it’s done well, I believe everybody rises up, that it shouldn’t be ashes and sackcloth.

If it’s done well, it’s great to volunteer. You leave feeling like I did something powerful. I want to come back ’cause I like that high. And I think similarly for the men and women we’re serving – and we did a lot of work with addicts when we started out. It was really heroine and alcohol, then crack, ended up with men and women who were felons. We kind of like whoever’s at the bottom is who we served.

But I was intrigued by replacing the highs they were used to and being needed, being part of a solution being respected, that was a huge leap. And the Kitchen work, not ’cause it was a school, it was, I think, because we allowed everybody to be part of a solution.

Tavis: To my mind, part of what gets lost in conversation in this country, whether you’re talking about Christian conservatives, compassionate conservatives, or whether you’re talking about progressives or liberals, I think both ends of this spectrum miss this point.

Egger: I agree.

Tavis: That there is a distinction to be made between charity and justice. We get so caught up in feeling good about the charity that we do, about the philanthropy that we engage in. But charity and philanthropy are fundamentally different notions than is this concept of justice.

Egger: Agreed.

Tavis: And you get that. Because if it was just about charity, then you would have continued feeding people and would never have moved into the social justice realm which is about giving them the opportunity to learn a skill, to learn a trade, and to be able to gainfully be employed and support themselves and their families. So let’s talk for a second, if we can, from your unique perspective about the difference between charity and justice.

Egger: Well, you know, there’s an old saying in my business. I think it was bishop somewhere in America who said, you know, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist.” [Laugh] And that’s a lot of the difference between – you know, people like charity. Charity’s safe.

Now I’ve gotten wiser as I’ve aged and I’ve come to realize most people in America are really decent people, but they want to hold on real tight to these stereotypes that, if you’re poor, it’s your fault. If you’re in jail, you did something wrong and you deserve it. And they want to hold on real tight.

So a great charity or a great nonprofit doesn’t try and fix the problem. It’s too big for anything. What we do is reveal an opportunity to make people brave. I feel like I’m in the bravery business ’cause I’m trying to get people purposely. That’s what I do. I set out at the end of the day to use the process of how we feed and train to get people to open up a little bit.

You know, most people when they came into the Kitchen, they were all tight thinking I’m gonna be working in a basement where they’re feeding 5,000 meals a day and they’re training homeless people. You know, people were like nervous and we had a very short window to get them to liberate their mind a little bit. So when they left and they went home, they were like almost – we almost wanted to ruin them for another charity.

You know, you think about 100 million people volunteer every year in America is a huge experiment and that idea of somehow training volunteers to leave thinking differently, to me that’s one of the real objectives of everything I do.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about terminology, one of the other things that concerns me – not just concerns me, honestly disturbs me and maybe you can shed some light on this. I think this was really the government who was responsible for making this shift. I don’t know why, but maybe you can, again, explain it. Of late, rather than talk about hunger, we use this phrase “food insecurity”.

Egger: Right.

Tavis: I got a problem with that, and I’m guilty of it because you want to be current in the lingo. You don’t want to offend people. You want to be present in terms of language and, again, words do matter and words have meaning. But this notion of shifting the conversation from being one of hunger. When you say hunger, people get that.

Egger: Right.

Tavis: When you say food insecurity, you have to explain that sometimes to people.

Egger: Right.

Tavis: What happened in Washington, what happened in the progressive community where we embraced this terminology where we talk about it as food insecurity as opposed to saying what it really is, people are hungry?

Egger: Well, it’s funny ’cause it was really hard to pin down hunger and they figured they could create this bigger construct, but it actually elevated the numbers of people now. So we went from about 25 million people 10 years ago who we thought were hungry and now we got 45 million who are, you know, at risk of hunger, which means in effect, at any given time or any given day, they don’t know where their next meal might be coming from.

Tavis: Which means food insecurity.

Egger: Right, and that’s a big window.

Tavis: Okay.

Egger: But it’s funny. When you think about the word homeless, I’ve always wondered where that came from because, if you think about it, words like this shield us from the bigger conversations. I mean, think about hunger and homelessness. If you think about all the things that’s wrapped up. It’s wage, it’s housing, it’s race, it’s drug addiction, it’s so many different subjects.

Each is gonna be tough, but unless we have these conversations, we’re not moving anywhere and that’s always been the problem. Americans are afraid of these big conversations, but until we talk about mental health in America, about prison systems in America, we’re just gonna be trying to charity our way out of it and won’t go anywhere.

Tavis: Maybe I should rethink my position on this then. Because what I thought I heard you say in a very ambassadorial sort of way, very kind and very true…

Egger: I am from D.C. [laugh].

Tavis: Sometimes that can be charity, sometimes that can be game and spin, but that’s another conversation for another time. But I think I should perhaps rethink what I said a moment ago because, if you’re telling me that by using this term food insecurity, it gives us a better and more accurate picture, if you will, of what the problem really is. Maybe it’s not such a bad term after all.

Egger: It is, but at the end of the day, the average American just doesn’t believe it. I mean, that’s what I find fascinating. See, when I came in here, I ran nightclubs. So, in effect, I’m a marketer, I’m a showman, I’m a lot of things. I’m a salesman, right?

And I watched people try and sell hunger over and over and I kept trying to politely suggest that, look, no matter how hard you’ve tried, the average American refuses to believe that there’s hunger in this country. So you got to try and find a different way to get into their heads a little bit. So that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing over the years is try and experiment with how do you reach people?

How do you get the average person to stop and open up and acknowledge that maybe some of the things they want to hold really tight – and a lot of that is their faith in this system we call democracy in America, which is glorious, but to challenge this notion that anybody can pick themselves up and move forward in America, that’s a tough nut, you know, to try and crack.

Tavis: When I saw you last in Washington in the Kitchen, my friend Cornel West and I were on a poverty tour and we spent some time with you and the people at the Kitchen. To your point now about Americans not believing that many people go to bed hungry every night, that there is food insecurity in this country, what’s at the heart of that?

I ask that because in the book that Dr. West and I subsequently wrote called “The Rich and the Rest of Us”, we have an entire chapter about this notion of American exceptionalism.

Egger: Right.

Tavis: And the part of what gets in the way of us believing that poverty is real and that it’s threatening our very democracy and all these offshoots, hunger and education and all the things that are connected to the notion of poverty, this is real.

But Americans, for whatever reason, don’t want to believe that and we in part believe or advance the argument in this text that it’s because we’ve been so caught up in this notion of American exceptionalism that we’re the biggest, that we’re the baddest, that that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in our universe.

That’s my take on it. What’s your reason, though, for why Americans don’t want to believe what the numbers tell us is the reality?

Egger: Well, you know, there’s the theory that Americans don’t want to acknowledge it might happen to them someday.

Tavis: Right.

Egger: You know, this is where you get into those ugly words like “them”, “those”. I’ve always hated that kind of language, but it’s easier to think that way. Like I said, I’ve become a modest student of fear in my old age. I’m mesmerized by how people genuinely are decent. You know, people give $300 billion dollars a year to charities to try and fix something and they want to think that, if I give all this money, it’ll get better.

So there’s clearly a sense of faith and there’s a sense of generosity, but there’s that missing piece that I think charities are afraid to challenge because this is where I think we’ve gotten a little bit off. There was only about 70,000 charities in the 1960s. Now we’re up to 1.5.

Tavis: Right.

Egger: So what you got is a lot of people fighting for a smaller piece of the pie. No one wants to be honest. It’s almost like watching an elected leader. I think everybody watches some of the debates and it’s like you kind of wish they’d speak the truth, but you know, if they actually do, they fear they’ll lose the election.

Same thing with charities. They’re afraid if they speak up and start talking truth to power or be a little bit more honest, they won’t get that grant and that’s where we stop. You know, there’s that fear of crossing that line.

So to me, advocacy is a real important part of this mission. You have to go out and talk about new laws, new legislation. And in fact, anybody who studies liberation movements and particularly some of the movements that started here.

When you think of Cesar Chavez, when you think about Dr. King, you think about all these different people, they weren’t trying to figure out a better way to make the back of the bus work. They were saying we’re not gonna stay in the back of the bus.

The charities in America and, ergo, the people we serve are back here and we’ve got to figure out how to get brave enough to go and confront this idea that the people we serve can’t be part of the mainstream in a powerful way and that we as charities can’t be voice for that.

You know, we’ve been told you can’t be political. You know, you can’t get up in this process. You have to sit back and just take it as it is. But corporations can be actively political. They can give their money to campaigns, and I think that is something that we need to challenge.

Tavis: So in your studying this dynamic, this dysfunction, if you will, on the part of charities, what have you learned about how to flip the fear or, put another way, what have you learned about how not to be frozen by the fear?

Egger: Well, you know, one of the great advantages right now that we have is new media. I mean, up until a couple of years ago, if a candidate had a big press conference and tried to answer questions, I’d be in the back and he might look and say, “I’m not gonna take his question” or, if he did take it, he could say some fuzzy stuff about – for example, I ask people all the time.

Nonprofits are the third biggest employer in America, major sources of outside investment in every community, and you can’t make profit without us, you know, without arts and faith and culture and all those stuff. So if you got an economical credit plan, what’s our role in it?

That’s a pretty straightforward question. Now the average politician doesn’t even remotely understand that, but they’ll for the most part say something nice and leave the stage and that’s done. Twitter? Man, now every single campaign, every single candidate’s, got an @ thing, you know.

So you think about it. There’s 10 million nonprofit employees who are also private citizens. So while we might not be able to be activists like we’d like to be when we go to work, when we go home and we’re private citizens, there’s 10 million of us.

And what we’ve got is the potential to reach out to every candidate and ask them not about my individual program, but in a sense saying, look, America can’t recover. America can’t move forward. Americans can’t make money without a defined role for the nonprofit sector. We are the best of America. We create the best profit in America and not just in the kind of figurative sense.

I think programs like the Kitchen, you know, we’re out to create jobs. I mean, I’m an employer. I’m here in L.A. to create jobs. I’m here to make some money happen for this city. And that’s what I think a smart mayor will start to get that.

In fact, I believe that’s the future is mayors who were elected to come in on day one saying, “If you’re one of these social enterprises and you’re hiring men and women who would go to prison, but now they’re being paid a salary and they’re taxpayers, and if you make profit, you reinvest it back in the community, how can I help you grow?”

Tavis: So since you went there, whether it’s in Washington where you live and have to deal with the federal government as well as local, so whether it’s the federal government or whether it’s municipalities, loaded question here.

How do or how have where hunger is concerned, where food insecurity is concerned, how have the politics gotten in the way? And you can be as broad, as liberal, as you want – no pun intended – as liberal in your answer as you want to be. But how have the politics gotten in the way?

Egger: Well, again, we have this bifurcated lens in America where we think dot.com drives the economy and makes money and dot.org does good deeds and is kind of nurturing. So politicians, when they think about this stuff, they immediately go to this side. They don’t see the hybrid. That’s what I’ve always been exploring. I think that’s the future. Nonprofits behave a little bit like business, but also businesses that behave a little bit like nonprofits.

So I’m interested in how do you elect people who see that possibility and incentivize it and reward it? So I’ll give you a good example. If you invested $1,000 in Microsoft in 1986, you got a million dollars in the bank with a one-time investment.

If you gave Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace prize for starting Microcredit, you give him $1,000, all you got was a one-time tax deduction. Now why not an annual tax deduction with increasing value based on the same rate of return principle as a dividend check if a nonprofit organization is so proven economic growth? Imagine the revolution that would be, if you could attain wealth by investing in your own town.

And think how that would incentivize and reward charities that instead of just serving the poor were liberating people because that meant that the investors who gave them money would make more money. See what I mean? There’s a way we need to bust free of this old notion of an economy based on dots.

Tavis: What’s stopping an innovative, good, simple, practical idea like that from taking place where the politics are concerned?

Egger: It’s really just electing smart. I mean, it’s electing a new generation of people who aren’t burdened by this dot.com, dot.org.

Tavis: Well, why can’t the old generation, why can’t the folk in Washington right now? They’re not stupid. Why can’t they understand that concept?

Egger: Well, actually, I’ve mentioned this once or twice up in D.C. It’s fascinating to watch peoples’ reaction because, at a gut level, it makes sense, but there’s this almost like when I started the Kitchen, there’s the sense of well, that can’t work. And it’s like, yeah, it can.

And that’s why I think anybody who tries to be up front, you’re trying to find those breakthrough ideas that challenge people intellectually to go to this new level. But once you get there, it opens up so many new doors.

Again, when I came along with the Kitchen, all I was saying was, look, everything I use is already here. I’m just taking food or society through a way. People or society are undervalued. The Kitchen is under-utilized. Volunteers who want to be part of something making something happen. People want in from out of the rain. Chefs that had jobs would also help teach.

It was all there. I just moved the pieces around. That’s kind of what I do for a living. I move pieces around to yield, to show a better way in which communities can really work in a way that not only liberates, but excites people.

Tavis: I know this, which is why you’re on the show. Now the nation knows how passionate you are about what you do and how brilliant you are at the way you do it. But, since you mentioned it a few times, what has been the benefit for the work you do now of having been a club promoter? I mean, how does that parallel? How does that work?

Egger: Well, you know, it’s funny, man. The reason I wanted to open a club, it sounds funny. I grew up out here. 10 years old in 1968 when Dr. King was murdered and then two months later Robert Kennedy here in town. Of course, Chavez was out doing the grape boycotts. So I became really – at 10 when your eyes open up and you see the world as it is, I couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

But a couple of months later, I saw my parents had a party and they were dancing to Motown and I saw the same people who didn’t believe in the Kennedy-King ideas but were dancing to the same ideas put to music. So that’s when I discovered the power of music. So for me, a nightclub was about using the power of music to disguise big ideas that I felt had to keep moving forward.

I just wanted to find a way to get people – again, I just watched my parents and a whole bunch of their friends let go of their fears and enjoy themselves. So that’s what I wanted to do. But it’s funny when I started the Kitchen, I ached to get back to the world of nightclubs, but I discovered the Kitchen became a nightclub.

You know, food became my music. It’s the same basic thing. I put on a show every day and it’s designed to do the same thing. I just try and find a way to get people from whether it’s somebody coming in the back door because they want a job for the first time, you know. They’ve never succeeded, never graduated from anything.

I’m trying to find a way to get them to where they want to go. If it’s somebody who’s young and a student in school and they’re doing service, but they want to do something more than just paint the shelter wall for the 33rd time. They want to experience something. I’ll take them there.

You know, whether it’s a president of the United States who’s looking for a new way to open up the economy so more people can participate, welcome home. You know, that’s what I do and that’s what I’m hoping to do – I shouldn’t say hope. I’m gonna do it here in L.A.

Tavis: I’m just laughing at how Motown is the answer to so many questions [laugh].

Egger: It always is. You know, Berry Gordy deserves a lot more credit than he gets.

Tavis: Yeah. I love Mr. Gordy. Speaking of which, I was in a conversation the other day and I’m glad this came up. I was in a conversation the other day and Berry Gordy has not as yet – they’re about to open up this play, you know, “Motown: The Musical”, on Broadway. Berry Gordy as yet has not received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Egger: That’s crazy when you think about it.

Tavis: I’m saying. You think of all of the people who we have given that high honor to, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Berry Gordy has not yet received that. Again, I’m not being funny about this. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times on this program or on my radio program, we’ve been talking about X, Y or Z and Motown. It’s the sound track of so many peoples’ lives.

Egger: Well, it was also the sound track of what unified this country. I mean, for all intents and purposes, it was a huge idea for this little chasm. Berry Gordy got people together on the dance floor of America, you know. Again, to me, music has tremendous power.

So the whole nightclub thing, again, it’s how do you use experiential stuff to get people to a place they’re afraid of? So, again, when you think about it, he does deserve that because he probably did more for freedom to think new ideas and to experience new things than just about anybody in our generation.

Tavis: So tell me about this expansion. I mentioned earlier that you’re in L.A., but you’re expanding across country. So tell me more about how you’re taking the D.C. Kitchen concept national.

Egger: Well, I’m an open source guy. I give it away. So there’s about 60 cities who did something like this, but L.A. never did and I was always intrigued by that. But more importantly, as I became aware, even though we throw away about 40% of the food we produce every day, half of that is fruit and vegetables.

So think about L.A., man. It’s at the bottom of this funnel right out of the Central Valley. So what you got is an endless supply of beautiful, healthy fruits and vegetables that you can get for free or nickels on the pound mainly because it’s cosmetically imperfect, can’t be sold.

So I’m interested in that, but I’m also interested in aging in America. You know, I tend to look out and see what’s coming and march out to meet it rather than wait for it to come to me.

And you can see what’s coming, which is there’s a waiting list for Meals on Wheels in most American cities now, and there’s 80 million people getting old, baby boomers who lost 40% of their wealth between 2005 and 2010 mostly in the equity to the home and that’s where most boomers thought their retirement was gonna come from. So you can see what’s coming. Tragically, it’s a whole lot of poor older people and I just can’t sit by and let that happen.

So I’m here to experiment with how do you produce extremely healthy food that will strengthen older people, not just feed them, but really strengthen? So whether you’re an addict coming in or you’re somebody off the street, I want to really start to experiment with vegetarian, even vegan meals, juices, for men and women who are poor in America. That’s one thing.

But more importantly, I want to really elevate the role of aging. I think we have to have a deep discussion because economically it’s essential that as many of our elders stay at home and stay productive as long as possible.

So what I’m looking – the baby boomers? Deepest well of life experience in the history of the world. No other generation that free, this rich, this educated, and will live this long. So the power, the potential there, go back to Robert Kennedy. Man, he talked about, you know, every time a person steps up and does right, they send for the small ripple and from a thousand different ripples.

You hear a lot about the silver tsunami? I believe that that is those ripples and that wave that can wash down the mightiest walls of oppression that Bobby Kennedy talked about, that this baby boomer generation, if challenged, if guided, could be a great generation. But you got to go out there and give them a way home.

So a lot of what I’m interested in doing in L.A., like I did with the homeless in D.C., is ask older people in L.A. which has got one of the biggest concentrations of poor, older people in America, come on in. Let’s work together side by side and let’s show America what elders can do.

Tavis: Quick question in 30 seconds. Your response to those who find the concept interesting and even appealing, but wonder why so many people you serve are addicts, users, abusers and, if they wouldn’t be in that situation, there’d be no need for you to be doing what you are doing if they had not gotten themselves in that trouble in the first place.

Egger: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of issues, but I’m a big believer. We need to have a discussion about mental health in America. A lot of people self-medicate whether it was alcohol – just a lot of bad behaviors are driven by peoples’ idea to self-medicate.

I’ve always felt bad that we just refuse – like I say, if you walk out of here and fall down and break your arm, everybody on this set, besides being the boss, everyone’s gonna walk over and make sure you’re okay. But if you got a broken brain, we push you out, you know. I think I’ve always been troubled.

Plus, you and I both know some of our best entrepreneurs are behind bars. You know, we’ve never found a way to channel some of that amazing entrepreneurial spirit. So a lot of what I want to do this time around the training, I want to bring young men and women out of foster care, emancipating out of foster care, and match them with older men and women coming home from prison.

I think there could be a powerful – no one’s ever done this. But create a job training where you put those two together to mentor each other and then together will produce thousands of really healthy meals while working with Angelinos side by side making this community whole.

Tavis: Yeah. I love this guy and you see why I had him on the program tonight. His name is Robert Egger. Robert, good to have you here.

Egger: A pleasure, man.

Tavis: Thanks for your work. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, until next time, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 30, 2013 at 9:40 pm