Sunday Conversation: Diana Aviv, Feeding America CEO

One of the most influential figures in the nonprofit world speaks about running the organization and changing minds on who deserves food assistance.
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TAMPA — In the days after Hurricane Irma grazed the Tampa Bay region, Diana Aviv, chief executive officer of Feeding America, worked alongside volunteers inside a humid warehouse to pack food for the many more who need it now.

Much of the food boxed this day went south to help those hit hardest by the storm, an on-the-ground reflection of the plea that now tops the web page of the largest hunger-fighting charity in the United States: "Record-Setting Hurricane Season ... We are working around the clock to respond to the growing need."

Aviv's trip to Florida including stops at the warehouse off 50th Street near 7th Avenue in Tampa and in Miami. The devastation Hurricane Maria wrought on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was still to come.

Feeding America, based in Chicago and the largest charity fighting hunger in the United States, leads a network of 60,000 food pantries covering every county in the country and striving to feed the estimated 40 million people facing a chronic challenge getting food.

Aviv, born in South Africa and named year after year as one of the most influential figures in the nonprofit world, spoke to Jonathan Capriel of Tampa Bay Times about running the organization and about changing minds on who deserves food assistance.

You've been involved with many non-profits. What made you want to lead Feeding America?

Because of the opportunity to solve hunger. This is a soluble problem. We are the richest country on the planet, with 41 million facing hunger. That's more than the entire population of Canada. Probably twice the size of Australia, and we're throwing away 40 percent of the food we produce. This is a soluble problem. We're working with good people to create a society in which we live in a hunger-free America.

What are some of the biggest challenges in solving hunger?

In this country we have a large empathy gap. A lot of people think that because we have a low unemployment rate, at the moment, that the problem of hunger is poor people are lazy and anybody can get a job if they like. That's just not the case. Well over 50 percent of the people who are part of our system are kids, seniors, peoples with disabilities or working families.

The biggest empathy gap is in Washington, D.C. We have wonderful lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats who work together to address hunger, but it's a very small group of people. For example, why do we have to make some children ineligible for the school lunch program? What are we talking about here — we're talking about breakfast and lunch, feeding children's bodies and brains so that they can learn and that they can play.

There are battles going on the definition of who is eligible for these types of programs. We are making children feel terribly embarrassed by having individual eligibility as opposed to looking at a population and seeing that the majority of people in that community qualify. We need to stop saying in school cafeteria, 'You have to be in the poor person's line.' We want our children to grow up feeling burden-free about things like this.

We have learned that our donors have great deal of sympathy for the people we serve on our food bank and canned food lines. They think of them as neighbors who have lost their houses to hurricanes or fell out of luck because they lost their job.

But those same donors, when talking about SNAP (food stamp) recipients, use very negative terms. They talk about them as gaming the system.

We have to make hunger unacceptable in America. We have to change minds and hearts.

How does a national organization operate successfully when its food banks often have different names, each relying on their respective communities?

Very often we'll get a corporation or an individual donor who will say, "I want to give to all the food banks in the southeast. I don't want to deal with each and every one of them, can you handle that?" And we'll say "Heck yes! Why not?" And then we reach out to all the banks in the southeast and distribute the money.

This past summer, I got a LinkedIn message from somebody who said, "My name is so-and-so, and I've got a whole bunch of tomatoes I want to donate. And I'm in Florida." I called our supply chain guy, it was on a Saturday, and asked, "Can we do something with this?" And they said, "Heck yes."

And it turns out the guy was going to pay for his own transportation. He just wanted to drop off the tomatoes, so a bunch of food banks here in Florida got hundreds of pounds of tomatoes that were just given.

He was not going to call every food bank and do it, and it could have been if he called Tampa, Tampa would have been able to take a quarter of it and the rest would have gone to waste. By our doing it and saying these are the addresses, these are the locations, contacting each — and he paid for the whole thing.

They're thrilled, because we were able to dispose of a whole bunch of tomatoes, which — who doesn't want tomatoes in the summer?

This past year, Feeding America gave out in grants almost $60 million. That makes us well over a billion dollar foundation. That makes us a massive foundation. The year before we gave out almost $50 million and the year before that $39 million, so clearly corporations are seeing us as a larger entity.

You mentioned shipping produce to food banks. What are difficulties in distributing perishable and healthy food?

As we have become more conscious as a society, we have realized that quality of food is just as important as quantity. Not just any old calories will do anymore.

The challenge for us is distribution and cost. There was one fellow in New York who I met who was running an agency. He said that he'd gotten three weeks in a row of deliveries of carrots, and his people were beginning to turn orange.

So, having produce alone isn't sufficient. You need protein, healthy grains and so on. Some of those things are hard to come by by way of donation. We depend on food banks being able to raise enough money to purchase that kind of product.

It's not a lack of willingness on the part of the food bank, it's how much can we afford.

My job is to go to the big corporations and say, "Come on, guys. You've got to do better than this. How about getting your employees to come and volunteer with us and give us some chickens? Give us some meat and eggs."

So, part of the job is to help them see that there's a solution for them that will work for them and will help them with their reputations.

What's one of the biggest differences between working as CEO of Feeding America and past organizations?

This network deeply appreciates a very positive attitude toward the national organization. We know that because we do surveys every year and we get a score over 80 percent approval. In the majority of networked organizations, the national organization barely gets 50 percent approval rating.

My very first experience of this was the sixth day on the job. I was starting to meet people ... a group of senators who served on agriculture committees and who are very important to us. They see oversee the SNAP program and other programs that are essential to completing our mission. One of the senators had kept me waiting a long time, and that got me worried because at 5 o'clock I had a telephone appointment with one of our donors who had just given us a $1.5 million the week before. When someone gives you that much money, you don't keep them waiting.

When I finally got on the phone, I tried to apologize for being late, but he interrupted me.

He said, "Before we say anything else, I first want thank you for giving me the opportunity to give."

I wanted to put him on speaker phone so everyone could hear.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected] Follow @JonathanCapriel

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