Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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A storied D.C. institution faces financial trouble after losing out on a long-held contract to provide meals to residents of nearly all the city’s homeless shelters. 

The nonprofit community kitchen DC Central Kitchen serves 10,000 meals per day, by its count, between its varying meal service operations. But it received an offer last fall to provide the meal service at half the shelters it has typically served, reducing the scope of its contract to five sites. 

Its contract is managed by an organization called The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a social services group that D.C. pays over $80 million annually to operate a number of local homeless shelters. TCP has long paid DC Central Kitchen to serve the majority of meals provided to sheltered homeless residents in the District. And the kitchen has consistently done so “for pennies on the dollar,” according to a brief its chief of operations Andy Finke wrote in its 2017 bid to TCP. 

“Because we’re a mission-driven actor, we never let contracting issues affect people experiencing homelessness. But we backfill the cost of [our service] by $400,000 per year. We do everything we do on a six-week operating reserve. It’s a huge drain on our resources,” says Alexander Moore, DC Central Kitchen’s chief development officer. 

In recent years, the organization’s annual contract with TCP has covered 10 shelters and was worth about $2.2 million, a number that decreased slightly to $1.8 million as District agencies wound down and eventually ceased operation of the DC General shelter last year. Moore tells City Paper this figure represents a per-meal reimbursement of $1.56 to $1.72. 

But after the District finalized its master contract in 2018 with TCP and the group in turn re-opened the bidding process for its subcontracts, TCP didn’t award DC Central Kitchen what has typically been the full scope of its service. 

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Contracts to provide roughly half a million meals per year at the city’s largest shelter sites—including the Days Inn, Quality Inn, 801 East Men’s Shelter, and New York Avenue shelter, which DC Central Kitchen used to serve—were awarded to Henry’s, a small restaurant and catering business. It is a registered Certified Business Enterprise with D.C.’s Department of Small and Local Business Development, and is listed as a Ward 8 business with a registered address in Congress Heights. The Henry’s website does not list this address, instead advertising a location on U Street NW and in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (Henry’s co-owner Bernard Brooks did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A member of TCP’s contract procurement staff deferred comment to the Department of Human Services.)

In response to a detailed list of DC Central Kitchen’s concerns, a DHS spokesperson emailed this statement: “The process for selecting food vendors is an open, competitive process which included a bidder’s conference to review the solicitation and proposal requirements for greater transparency. Vendors for each shelter site were selected based on knowledge of food safety best practices, demonstrated experience with quality control protocols and meal preparation in large quantities, and other solicitation criteria such as past performance.”

Last year wasn’t the first time Moore heard of Henry’s. “Back in 2011 DC General’s meal service contract changed,” Moore says. DC Central Kitchen “had been delivering lunch, but then that contract was cancelled. It was awarded to Henry’s without a public [bidding] process. We were told that providing lunch wasn’t necessary, and then it was awarded to another vendor. That was the choice that was made.”

Under its new agreement with TCP, DC Central Kitchen serves only 800 meals per day across five shelters, including Blair House and Emery Work Bed. All of these shelters, with the exception of the Patricia Handy Place for Women, serve fewer than 100 people. It is reimbursed at a lower rate per meal than Henry’s—at $3.05 for breakfast and $3.50 for dinner, compared with Henry’s’ $3.20 and $5.18, respectively— according to budget documents submitted to the D.C. Council by DHS. Henry’s will also receive $3.75 for a “specialty breakfast,” $5.18 for lunch, and $7.50 for “specialty dinner.” DC Central Kitchen will not be reimbursed for these offerings, according to the same documents. 

City Paper asked Moore whether DC Central Kitchen received a justification from TCP for the change in the contract’s scope, or the discrepancy in reimbursements between it and the other vendor. “Absolutely not,” he says. “The decision making process was extremely opaque.” 

Moore also describes the contracting process as “really flawed.” “We were informed in the spring and early summer that meal counts had been given to a different vendor, but it wasn’t communicated in an official way. And we were given one-and-a-half business days’ notice [last fall] that we had to reduce our shelter meals,” he says. “All along we’ve had fundamental concerns [about the process]. And repeated follow-ups to get guidance haven’t been answered.”

In all, the current value of DC Central Kitchen’s contract sits at just over $1 million. The total amount available, according to The Community Partnership’s solicitation, was $10 million.

Consequently, Moore now says the organization, which was already operating at about a $400,000 annual loss it compensated for with private donations and grants, faces a $1 million annual revenue shortfall.

“It’s jeopardized more than a dozen jobs we’re fighting to keep. These are men and women we’re honored to train and employ. We’re trying to be as creative as we can to pursue additional contracts. That’s hard work, and we’re committed to doing right by them, [but the contract] hasn’t made it easy for us,” Moore says. (DC Central Kitchen trains and employs formerly and currently homeless residents, paying them full-time salaries with benefits.)

Moore regards the contract’s handling of specialty meals, which are ostensibly to accommodate residents with varying health needs, with skepticism. “It’s totally unclear what standards are being met,” he says, especially considering that some residents would only be given one “special meal” per day. 

DC Central Kitchen also received “no guidance from TCP about specifically what they want from those meals. Nor do we have a count from TCP about how many shelter clients need them,” Moore says. “There has not been a holistic approach to saying, this is what a shelter meal costs, this is what the expectation is around calorie count, across sites, across vendors.” 

The Community Partnership’s request for proposals and finalized contract with DC Central Kitchen also includes a mandate that prospective subcontractors use the “food pyramid” as a guideline to prepare healthy and balanced meals. 

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture abandoned the idea of the food pyramid, which was created in 1992 and last revised in 2005, nearly a decade ago. Since 2011 it has adopted a different standard for what’s considered a healthy meal, called “MyPlate.”

Taken together, the frustrations of navigating the landscape of shelter service in D.C. have prompted Moore to advocate for greater transparency in the bidding process. “It’s a structural problem because it’s a sub-vendor relationship,” he says. “[The city] is not in a position to drive meaningful change. This is an opportunity to rethink whether food service should be part of TCP’s master shelter contract, or managed separately.”