In 1968, a 9-year-old Southern California kid named Robert Egger was watching a news report on Sen. Robert Kennedy’s arrival in Los Angeles, where he’d be meeting with labor rights leader Cesar Chavez. The image burned itself into Egger’s memory — “I want to do that,” he recalls thinking — sticking with him after he grew up, moved to D.C. and worked for a decade at nightclubs in a punk scene that included hardcore bands such as Bad Brains and Minor Threat. “I was dreaming of changing the world through music,” he recalls. As it turned out, that change would come through food instead.
In 1989, Egger founded D.C. Central Kitchen. The groundbreaking meal distribution and job training program helped combat food waste and reduce homeless rates in a city reeling from Reagan-era social cutbacks and a sprawling crack epidemic. In the ensuing two and a half decades, D.C. Kitchen produced more than 30 million meals and helped 1,500 men and women gain full-time employment, with the program’s model spreading to 50 other “campus kitchens” across the country.
Egger went on to author an award-winning book and received the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2004. Yet if you were to ask the energetic and ebullient 57-year-old about his biggest challenge yet, he’ll insist it lies squarely in front of him: Los Angeles.
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In 2013, Egger returned to Los Angeles to launch L.A. Kitchen, an ambitious hybrid nonprofit and social enterprise located in a Lincoln Heights warehouse. It serves as both a nonprofit culinary job training center for former inmates and at-risk youth — where students use donated produce and food that would otherwise go to waste — and a separate, for-profit catering operation called Strong Food, which employs program graduates to prepare healthy food aimed at feeding low-income seniors. “Los Angeles, the temple of youth, has the largest concentration of elderly residents in America, and it’s growing by 2.5 million in the next decade,” Egger says. “Not many people realize that.”
As made-from-scratch meals roll out of the commissary kitchen (a week’s menu might include anything from Thai beef salad to andouille jambalaya), the kitchen provides not just sustenance but also job creation, food-waste reduction and affordable grub for an overlooked populace. It shouldn’t be surprising that the AARP gave L.A. Kitchen a startup grant of $1 million three years ago, the largest grant in the organization’s history.
The sheer scope of L.A. Kitchen, its dedicated staff and its future plans are hard to capture in a few paragraphs, but to sit with Egger — a self-described “navel-gazing philosopher” — is to understand the amount of thought involved. He might invoke a Morrissey lyric about becoming “a hostage to kindness” or reference his belief that charity too often is concerned with “the redemption of the giver, rather than the liberation of the receiver.”
Yet in the simplest terms, Egger is fascinated with the idea of producing what he calls “beautiful meals” — cooking that is flavorful, multi-ethnic, nutritious, locally sourced and often plant-based — for less than $5 apiece. That’s a price with potential to feed a city. “We’re betting everything on L.A.,” he says. “This is where the future is happening.”