It's not a lack of food that boggles Thomas Mantz's mind, but the vast amount of food wasted every day.
"Most in our community would have food on their table if so much wasn't thrown out," said Mantz, executive director of Feeding America Tampa Bay, one of the largest hunger relief organizations in the United States.
Like a deep-sea treasure hunter, Mantz, 51, leads the recovery effort, diving into relationships with grocers, manufacturers and restaurants that reeled in 43 million pounds of food last year. But there is a distribution challenge: How do 500 partner agencies get the food to more than 700,000 needy people in west-central Florida?
About half of the soup kitchens, food pantries, emergency shelters, after-school programs and others pick up their food. The rest rely on Mantz's delivery network, from Bradenton north to the Villages, in a 9,000-square-mile area encompassing 10 counties.
"And it's all subject to Food and Drug Administration standards, just like any grocery store," he said.
Mantz merged a Wall Street background with a strong social conscience while he worked in insurance and investing, fundraising for the Episcopal church and collecting undergarments for the homeless, all previous careers. Mantz headed Second Harvest North Florida, directing services in 17 counties, when he was lured to Tampa in 2012. He lives in South Tampa with his wife, Lynne.
He spoke to Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer following the recent Fork Fight benefit dinner, which raised $140,000 for people who don't know where their next meal might come from.
Would you say transportation issues are your biggest headache?
There's a lot of unclaimed food — billions of pounds of produce are thrown away in Florida every year. Our challenge is to go out there and find it, which takes more trucks, more staff, more resources. We have 16 refrigerated trucks on the road every day. We say we are a logistics firm that calls itself a charity.
Did living in Russia for two years spur your decision to leave the corporate world?
When Russia privatized business, the bank I worked for handled record-keeping for the Moscow stock market. It was an incredible experience to be part of that evolving culture. The infrastructure was crumbling, there was a tremendous need for housing and human services. In some ways, it was a Third World country.
I've always been socially conscious, and living in New York, you note a lot of homelessness and hunger. One Thanksgiving my wife, Lynne, and I called to volunteer at a local food bank. They said, "No thank you. Everybody and their brother comes on Thanksgiving." They said, "Pick another day. Folks are hungry 365 days a year."
Not long after, I started volunteering to cook and deliver food for the homebound. That was my introduction. In 1999, I left New York and started up a new organization called Dignity U Wear with a Holocaust survivor in Jacksonville. He had the idea that homeless people never get underwear and socks donated to them. We started much like a food bank with 200 pairs and now serve in at least 15 states.
What do you do when you're not strategizing and sourcing food?
My wife and I are both runners and gym rats, we play golf and we kayak, and if a day is particularly tough you'll probably find me buried in a crossword puzzle or book, lately biographies. I come from a family where words were paramount and they have always been a haven for me.
I thought working on Wall Street or in Russia was tough — those assignments were nothing compared to the nonprofit world. It can be incredibly frustrating not to be able to do more, help more. I believe that if more people in our community knew folks did not have enough to eat they would pitch in.
Is it ironic that an abundance of food such as that eaten at Fork Fight, a five-course gourmet meal paired with many wines, became the signature fundraiser for people lacking enough food?
It's not incongruous to have a fancy dinner that costs us very little. All the chefs donate their skills, their love of all they do for a living. They're not going to fix Spam. In return, donors are happy and want to support the mission. We all want the same thing — a good meal on a table. None of us believe that anyone should go hungry.
Can the problem of hunger ever be solved?
The reality is the generation before us and the next generation will have poverty, and hunger is a byproduct of poverty. Solve poverty and you solve hunger. Our role, I think, is to build the best possible collection and redistribution process we can. More meals on more tables is our goal. It would be great if one day our services would no longer be needed. Until then, we'll keep at it.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? In 20 years?
Throughout my career, I'm the start-it-up or the fix-it guy, hired to turn around an organization and move it forward. This time, I want to stay to be part of the long-term success of what we are doing. In retirement, I think I would enjoy teaching nonprofit management. I am an introvert through and through, but interestingly, I always come out as a teacher in aptitude and career tests.
My wife says Jacksonville is a great place to raise kids, but Tampa is a great place to be an adult. There is much to do and be a part of here.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3332. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.