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
As I was seeking food for the community kitchen at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, I saw the need to move beyond what one church could provide. I began reaching out to other organizations. If they would join me in the work of feeding people in their own communities, I promised to secure enough food for all of us. I am grateful for my own naiveté and for a lot of grace in the beginning of my work. I didn’t know I could fail, so I was able to dream big and take risks.
The Food Bank was born out of this new model of centralizing acquisition and decentralizing distribution. It made sense to meet people where they were, not only for easier access, but because local communities are fertile ground for building trust. I knew from my experience of ministering in a church directly with the homeless and poor families that hunger manifests itself on a lot of different levels. I often saw people who clearly needed a good nutritious meal, but I also saw people who hungered at a deeper level – for greater meaning in their lives; who longed for more love and acceptance, who needed to feel heard and respected for who they were. I saw people who needed mental health care, a second chance, or a better education so that they could get a better job. Having grown up in a small town in a working class family, I often saw in them a reflection of myself.
Changing Hearts and Minds
The Food Bank began not only as a way to change the food distribution system – which we have literally transformed – but equally important, to change hearts and minds to understand the systemic, psychological, and sometimes spiritual reasons that people find themselves in a state of need. I began with a deep belief that every life counts – that everyone, no matter their station in life, deserves to be treated with dignity and given a second chance.
36 years later, with the support of an incredible community, we have distributed over half a billion pounds of food – enough for nearly 500 million meals – and we have made remarkable strides in growing awareness and understanding. Hearts and minds have indeed been changed, but we still have plenty of room for progress.
Interestingly, I have not worked myself out of a job, but I will soon be changing my role from leading the Food Bank to supporting the next generation to lead. I will work more broadly in the community and take on a greater role as connector, teacher, advisor, mentor, convener, facilitator and friend to those who want to help make things better. I will continue to support the Food Bank as a senior advisor, and I’ll support the network of food banks across the state. I’m also excited to be helping with the Food Well Alliance, a new fresh food initiative that – in partnership with the Food Bank – will build healthier communities by increasing access to local, fresh food.
Along my journey at the Food Bank, I discovered that there were many who wanted to help – together, we created a movement that not only included, but demanded, the diversity of the community be involved. I am so moved by the response of our community – the individuals, organizations and congregations of all faiths who want to honor their call to help the poor, hungry and dispossessed. You work tirelessly every day, feeding and helping your neighbors in need.
I’m deeply grateful for the donors, volunteers, foundations, businesses, schools, advocates, families and friends who help to make it all possible. There is simply no way we can accomplish what we do without you.
I will forever be grateful for the trust and support I have received to fulfill my life’s call to serve. I have had mentors, teachers, critics and friends along the way who have made me a better person and a better leader.
I will never be able to express my gratitude and respect for the hard working employees at the Food Bank. I have worked with some of these great people for 25+ years, and we continue to draw the best and brightest into our ranks.
I will never forget you.
Challenge to Continue the Conversation
You have changed not only the system, but also the conversation. For many, the perception still exists that the poor deserve their fate – that they are lazy, don’t want to work, are on the dole at tax payer’s expense and don’t deserve our support. It is clearly a complicated issue and we continue to live in that tension today. Together, we have made a strong case that having access to healthy food has a direct effect on common goals of better health and educational outcomes, a stronger national security, more robust economic development and a positive, hopeful and more empowered sense of ourselves and our communities. I challenge you to continue talking even when the dialogue gets complicated.
Our Call to Serve
The foundation and values of any organization are essential to its long term success. My core beliefs remain the same as they were when I started this work. I believe that at a very deep level, at our essence, everything is connected to everything else - thoughts, words and deeds have power and meaning. I believe that leadership matters, that working together out of our core values and assets and across our distinctions and differences makes almost anything possible. That working on sustainability, the environment, access to health care, education, ethics – whatever one’s call – helps each other and the common good. Most importantly, I believe to sustain in this work we need to know ourselves and what our unique call is.
For me, the measurement of success is not in pounds distributed, dollars raised or even lives transformed, but in this question: Have I been faithful to my call to serve? As my journey in this calling to serve continues, I hope that I can share that journey with many of you.