I want to take a moment to share with you how grateful I am to serve as the new President and CEO of Atlanta Community Food Bank. It is the opportunity of a lifetime. The challenges and opportunities facing us have never been more exciting. Our future has never looked more promising.
When I first began the Atlanta Community Food Bank in 1979, people often said to me, “I hope you can work yourself out of a job.” And I guess in the beginning that was my simple goal – no more hunger in a land of plenty. It seemed like a reasonable goal at the time since 30 percent of what we grew and packaged was unmarketable, often being sent to the landfill. Maybe all we needed, I thought, was a better logistics system.
Hungering at a Deeper Level
Eyes of the Beholder
As I stand under the Olympic Rings and look down the hill to the beginning of the Hunger Walk/Run each year, it appears as if a sea of humanity – black and white, young and old, rich and poor, every faith tradition, political persuasion and point of view – are merged into a moment in time in support of a common purpose. It’s an impression that stays in my memory throughout the year. As Plato once said “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For me there is nothing more beautiful than Hunger Walk Day.
Those in our community who struggle with hunger aren’t always who you think they are. That’s something we say a lot at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and we see the evidence all around us.
“Hunger in America 2014,” a new study released by Feeding America, shows that 46.5 million people in the U.S are served each year by its nationwide network of 200 food banks, including the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). Those served include 12 million children and 7 million seniors. That comes out to 1 in 7 Americans who turn to food banks each year for assistance.
I am feeling very encouraged. We recently completed our most successful Hunger Walk/Run, with more than 17,000 participants and a cadre of volunteers and sponsors in attendance. The event was an affirmation of everything we believe in and work for at the Food Bank. The diversity of faith, business, public, civic and community groups reflected a rainbow of humanity with common values and commitment to make things better for our neighbors in need.
It started as a simple idea 30 years ago - an answer to a question that was not yet fully formed.
The year was 1984 and we had only begun to imagine what was possible. The Food Bank itself was still in its infancy, and yet we were very confident that we were on to something important. We were still operating out of an old rented warehouse using donated trucks and mostly volunteer labor. We had found congregations and communities of people who wanted to work with and support us, but what could we do together to show our common values and commitment?
I recently attended a reception and was introduced to a civic leader in the community. When she learned that I was the executive director of the Food Bank, she looked me in the eye and said she doesn’t like to support people who use food stamps because they buy things she views as unhealthy. When asked for examples, she mentioned soft drinks, snack food, beer and cigarettes.
The calls began early in the week and just kept coming. While it’s not unusual for me to receive an occasional call from a person who needs help, it was unusual to get so many calls in a row. And why were they calling me?
We have a designated phone number and a whole cadre of staff members who take similar calls every day. They help callers find a food pantry near where they live or refer them to a place that has the services they need.
I recently had the opportunity to listen to a U.S. Congressperson speak about the condition of the economy, the obvious gridlock in Congress, and the need for political parties of both persuasions to find common ground. There were a lot of nodding heads in the audience. He spoke of four challenges that affect our economy: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Welfare.
We just completed the busiest holiday season in our 33 year history: over 800 food drives, thousands of volunteers, and numerous special events, engaging more and more people in the work of hunger relief. In November and December alone, the Food Bank distributed record breaking amounts of food and grocery products to our partner agencies – eight million pounds. This was not a surprise as our distribution has grown by 85% over the past four years. Our staff, volunteers and supporters have responded to our communities’ needs with creativity, professionalism and tremendous effort.
I recently had a significant birthday, one of those that as a young person I never imagined having. Of course like everyone else I always wanted to live a long life; I just didn’t know how it would feel along the way. It reminds me of the old saying “if I knew I was going to live so long I might have taken better care of myself”. As I am now finding, it’s never too late.