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Activist Robert Egger's SoCal Return

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Robert Egger

A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" is based on this story. Watch it here now.

After having "lived long and hard in D.C.," food activist Robert Egger is reconnecting with his Southern California roots. But that doesn't mean he's slowing down. Quite the contrary.

Referencing a certain Seinfeld episode, Egger, a very personable contrarian, explains, "I always say we practice the Seinfeld model. Everything charity did, I did the opposite." At D.C. Central Kitchen, which he founded 25 years ago after a long stint running nightclubs (the band at Egger's D.C. going away tribute party included members of Fugazi, The Cramps, and Thievery Corporation), Egger irreverently -- yet successfully -- created job-training and food access programs using mostly donated surplus food to serve millions of meals to many thousands of residents. And more importantly, he created templates that are replicable in other cities, such as the kitchens that have been established in Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, and Chicago. So, next up: L.A.

Armed with the AARP's first million-dollar startup grant, as well as in partnership with St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, Egger is officially launching L.A. Kitchen as part of a sprawling 56,000 square-foot industrial brick building on Avenue 26 in Lincoln Heights that's about to be transformed into the L.A. Prep food complex. Trim and charismatic, Egger could run "with the hipsters in Echo Park," but the 55-year-old Egger and his wife have settled in quieter Mount Washington while he focuses his latest food activism efforts on seniors and integrating his programs with broader issues related to aging in America.

As part of a military family, he grew up Chula Vista and Capistrano Beach, and remembers his easygoing years spent in Anaheim when the "Tragic Kingdom" felt like an extension of the surrounding area's suburban backyards. These days he's an in-demand speaker at nonprofit management, social entrepreneurship, and community activism conferences around the world.

Egger has joined forces with developers Mott Smith and Brian Albert of Civic Enterprise to be the anchor tenant in L.A. Prep, a facility with 49 commercial kitchens. Food Centricity, a "business accelerator," will also work with L.A. Prep's artisanal food and drink producer tenants, and Civic Enterprise has collaborated with the L.A. County Department of Public Health in order to better position small-scale food entrepreneurs' products in the marketplace vis-à-vis full code compliance.

On Thursday, May 1 at 7:00 p.m., the team is hosting a "Demo-cation" event at the space at 230 W. Avenue 26. Shlemmer Algaze Associates will helm the overall renovation design, with FE Design on board for the kitchen components. Construction is scheduled to be completed early next year.

Egger met up on Avenue 26 to talk about his plans for what he calls "the third variation of my career." He is a man of many opinions, but here are 10 points culled from our conversation.

1. Los Angeles is prime territory for his non- and for-profit community development model, because it's "where the future comes to happen."

You get the food, you get the people, you get the media. I love to tell people that L.A. is where the future comes to happen. It's a creative economy here. People are prone to believe. If you can make it happen, right on.

2. Outdated federal programs explain a lot of what winds up in the mouths of elderly and poor Americans.

If you look at what really drives food in America it's the federal reimbursement. School food, senior meals, prison meals, SNAP. It's all federal money. Ergo, to get reimbursement for Meals on Wheels, there's certain nutritional content of the meals. This was all drawn up by the people who want you to buy their pre-packed meals, or their meat, or their dairy. It's the kind of fiction of the nutritional guidelines.

3. "Charity food" doesn't need to look, feel, and taste the way it typically does.

The problem is the plate. The institutional plate you see where the big piece of meat goes here with the other stuff around it -- that's the problem. The plate is driving our entire structure, so if you get rid of the plate, you're free. So what we're looking at is kind of a bento box model that says, here's how we'll spread the protein out. So instead of a bad piece of chicken, we'll do lots of alternative proteins throughout.

Right now [federal reimbursement programs] contract with what is called the "American menu," which is in effect white people food. I anticipate in 5 - 10 years a huge demographic up-tick in seniors who want vegetarian and vegan meals because they want to be healthier. I see our future as people who are going to want locally sourced, ethnically diverse, nutritionally dense snacks and meals. I look at the food I can get for free or very low cost. If you go to Café Gratitude or Tender Greens, I can produce that meal for poor people. That's what's exciting. I want to take the food truck culture. Between the labor, and the availability of the food here, I can do anything any restaurant can do for literally nothing.

4. Keeping seniors engaged and intergenerational exchange are essential to wider social and economic well-being, and this is a great place to encourage it.

An economic principal that's key is in every city in America is that older people need to stay home, and be as independent as possible, and be productive as long as possible. And that's volunteerism. I think intergenerational [interaction] is a huge part. These are trends of the future. Let's do this now, let's lead here in L.A.

5. The current foodie culture is problematic.

I find the food culture wildly indulgent and somewhat over the top. I wrote a blog piece [asking], Does posting pictures of your food send the wrong message? There are a lot of people around the world who don't have a lot of food. It makes Americans seem oblivious and blind to how other people live. We're so wrapped up in the excitement of our lives and our luck.

Dudes, I get it. Have fun. But be a little more humble in your fortune. Boy, did I hit a nerve on that one.

6. Childhood anti-hunger campaigns are worthy, but also help reinforce the charity and food policy status quo.

It's easier to raise money for kids. Historically, I run a successful program, but for crack addicts, prostitutes, and the mentally ill. All hunger is wrong. You're just picking the lowest fruit, and making it four times harder for the rest of us. Plus strategically kids don't vote. Seniors vote. You want to really change food policy, talk to seniors.

But we did one of the most successful cooked from scratch school meal programs in America. We're doing 5,000 of those a day. What we were able to show is you can produce a locally sourced, cooked from scratch meal -- and kids would eat it. There is a striking similarity between what you do for kids, and what you do for seniors.

7. Egger works from an intensely grassroots up model, challenging assumptions at every level.

I tend to kind of reject normal metrics. In my business, people judge success by how many pounds you move, or how many agencies you serve. And it's like, just because I moved a bunch of food, doesn't mean it was good food? I could've poisoned people!

I was so discouraged when I came in. I first proposed this idea in the 1980s. I didn't want to do it. I ran nightclubs. I said to some of the charities I knew were serving people, "I know you do it well, but here's a way you can feed more people for less money, and if you do job training, restaurants need workers." It was always trying to challenge the status quo but in a way that offered an alternative.

8. Produce should be better processed to maximize use and nutritional value, and minimize waste.

This is about processing. Chopping, dicing, pureeing, and then freezing or refrigerating, or using immediately. With the typical model now, [fresh food] would either go from a farm, to a food bank, to a pantry, and to a home. You have cascading decay all the way down. That takes more than three days, you're starting to lose a huge amount of your stuff. You have a lot of excitement about fruits and vegetables coming into the system, but the system was geared towards stable, non-perishable food. The system doesn't work well for produce. All it can do it shove it out the door as quick as it can. Look, if you process it, you have the ability to stabilize it.

9. Food programs for seniors need to get smarter about present, and prepare for the near future.

We're struggling to feed people, and less than 10% [of eligible seniors are taking advantage] of Meals on Wheels or SNAP benefits. Right around the corner is an army of Baby Boomers who will be wildly ready to take advantage of food stamps and Meals on Wheels, but will be wildly demanding. And meanwhile, you have a system of the food banks that rely on donating products, which is lost profit. So, L.A. Kitchen is coming along, saying, this is a smarter way to look at this.

10. Celebrity Chef José Andrés is one of his longest supporters.

José and I have been friends for 20 years. A friend of mine, Rob Wilder, who's now his partner [in ThinkFoodGroup] but at the time was his boss, had just hired this young Spanish dude. And he was like, "Hey man, you got to meet our new chef." So, José came down, and for some reason he just loved what we did, and we've been friends ever since.

He showed up at my office one day, and announced his plans for World Central Kitchen. I said, "I have D.C. and you have the rest of the world!" That's very José. It's rare that when he gets media attention, he doesn't turn it around and talk about D.C. Kitchen. He's been very generous. He's done everything he can do. We've always had the support of the chefs.

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