Sous chef Howard Thomas prepares food for a charter school at DC Central Kitchen. Photo by Ezra Gregg.

For executive chef Allison Sosna’s kitchen, 5:30 a.m. means lights up, ovens on, and Bob Marley’s greatest hits playing.  

Sosna, whose specialty is French cuisine and who has had accomplishments at Dean & Deluca and the Inn at Little Washington, begins her workday by surveying her facilities, answering a few e-mails and monitoring the inventory of fresh produce. Her sous-chef, Howard Thomas, formerly of the Capital Grille, comes in shortly thereafter. On this particular day they were preparing to meet their new culinary director, David Strong, who most recently was a top chef and caterer from the Capitol.  

Where can you find this combination of amazing culinary skill? Your child’s school.  

Sosna and her colleagues work together for DC Central Kitchen and Fresh Start Catering in order to provide fresh, made-from-scratch food for children and adults around the District. She heads the kitchen located at the Washington Jesuit Academy, a Catholic school for disadvantaged boys, and she oversees the production of nearly 850 fresh school meals each day. Feeding school children is part of a new and growing initiative by DC Central Kitchen, which also prepares 4,500 meals each day for homeless shelters, social service programs and charitable institutions at its main facility on Second Street NW.  

In addition to feeding the kids at the Washington Jesuit Academy and Next Step Public Charter School, DC Central Kitchen was also chosen as one of two vendors recently contracted by D.C. Public Schools as part of a pilot program to provide wholesome meals to seven District public schools under the city’s new Healthy Schools Act. The act, which mandates strict nutritional standards and encourages the inclusion of fresh, locally-grown ingredients, comes in the wake of a larger national push, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, to combat childhood obesity and promote better eating habits among school children.  

The school lunch initiative seems like a good fit for DC Central Kitchen, which since it was founded in 1989 by former nightclub owner Robert Egger, has made its mission to “use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds and build communities.”  

A photo of two students selecting from lunch options at their school.

Fresh Start now provides contract food service for Next Step Public Charter School in Columbia Heights. Next Step joins Washington
Jesuit Academy, which has contracted with Fresh Start for three years. Photo by Ezra Gregg.

The nonprofit collects 3,000 pounds of surplus food each day from area food services to provide its meals to the poor and homeless. In addition, the nonprofit works with local farmers to procure fresh produce and runs Fresh Start Catering, a full-service catering program to help generate revenue.  

DC Central Kitchen’s culinary job training program enrolls unemployed adults overcoming homelessness, addiction and incarceration in a 12-week professional education course that helps prepare them for work in the food service industry. Students learn from top chefs about everything from how to run a kitchen to how to prepare the repertoire of sauces essential to many types of cuisine.  

“It’s difficult for someone with a criminal record to get a job,” said 25-year-old Sosna. “We help these men and women get the training and work experience that they need so that they can move on with their lives successfully.”  

When asked where they have been placed, Strong said, “Everywhere in D.C. We have a great network of restaurants in town. But recently, we have needed the people that we train. Our organization has grown so quickly that we have created over 40 jobs and employed the people that we have trained.”  

Graduates of the program who work in schools do not have criminal records.  

“Someone once told me that it’s amazing that a girl from New Jersey and six ex-cons could make such beautiful food,” added Sosna, “but that never surprised me.”  

Sosna’s passion to cook later in her young life led her to the L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, but now combines her love for people and food at her current job. “I take a holistic approach to food,” she says. “We teach adults in the kitchen to be incredible chefs, and we teach the children of the District to truly understand how to eat healthy.”  

For his part, her colleague David Strong explains his passion by describing a recent incident. He had to make a quick stop to eat when running between meetings around Washington, and he chose to stop at Subway. There he watched his sandwich prepared for him from the opposite side of the thick glass. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Strong. “This really is the closest [kids in some areas of Washington] can get to an assortment of fresh vegetables. That is why we do what we do.”  

Strong has made it his goal to do better. “We have had fresh fruit and vegetables delivered directly from a farm at our door and had it prepared and on plates less than 15 minutes later,” he said.  

“And we use everything,” continued Sosna. “If you look in our refrigerator, we have freshly prepared stocks [including fish, chicken and corn stock]. And with the excess tomatoes, we make and store our own sauces that will last us for a couple of months.”  

Fresh food is delivered twice a week by local farms in order to provide what DC Central Kitchen likes to call “farm-totable fine dining.” As Sosna and Strong were talking, the sous-chef had begun to cut freshly roasted turkey for the school’s lunch that day.  

DC Central Kitchen also works with schools so that they can create their own gardens. Walking behind the play fields of Washington Jesuit Academy, one can see and smell a garden full of herbs and vegetables that the students of the school has been growing. One of the planters, a boat, fortuitously reads “Destiny” on its side.  

Good nutrition is not always an easy sell in schools, said Sosna.  

“It can be a challenge [presenting a new culture of fresh foods], but we work with families and students to educate them on how to eat healthy and affordably,” said Sosna. “We have also occasionally run into staff who, after encouraging students to eat healthy, are found walking the halls with large fast food cups. Overall, though, we have had great success in really changing the culture of eating in D.C”.