by Art Levy
Updated 2 months ago
If you can find that intersection in life of your particular abilities and talents — and we all have them — with one of society’s great needs, incredible things can happen
I grew up in Erie, Pa., one of five kids, middle class. My dad worked in the local steel factory for his entire career, a lot of that time as a laborer. The one thing in my childhood that ties me to what I’ve been doing for 29 years is we all ate dinner together, all seven of us. You’d come to the table and there would be the meat and potatoes and the green beans and a big glass of milk and sometimes a dessert. One day, I was probably 7 or 8, I went to the table and that food was not there. Instead, there was water, a giant silver can in the middle of the table that said USDA peanut butter in big block letters and some saltines. I remember saying, ‘Hey, mom, what’s the deal here?’ And she said, ‘David, just eat what’s in front of you and then get your homework done.’ My dad’s factory was a union shop, and I found out later that they had been out on an extended strike. My parents lived very, very frugally and simply, but with the loss of that income, they were struggling to put food on the table. That food obviously came from some food pantry in our area or a local church. Eventually, the meatloaf and potatoes came back, but it’s interesting how a lack of food can impact a lot of us at some point in our lives.
When I look at my team here — and we have lots of millennials — I’m encouraged to see their drive and their passion for social justice. And when I speak to high school and college groups, it gives me so much hope to see that we have a generation that really cares.
We serve a six-county area. When I started here 17 years ago, we distributed about 14½-million pounds of food a year. That’s a fair amount of food. We’re about to finish our most recent fiscal year, and we will have distributed 110-million pounds of food.
I want to know what drives people, what motivates people. I find it an incredible puzzle to figure out.
We were living in South Florida in the early ’90s, in Plantation, where we raised our family. I worked for a couple of ad agencies when I was there, and one of my good friends approached me. He was one of the founders of the food bank in Miami, and he asked me to be a board member. I said no. Well, he asked me two more times, and I said no. The next time, he said, ‘Dave, just get in the car with me, come down to a board meeting and observe.’ He wore me down, and I eventually joined the board. It opened my eyes. I don’t know why it took me so long.
In the ad agency business, I worked on cruise lines, car rental companies, restaurant chains and software companies — a variety — and you’re always looking for that client that’s a really unique selling proposition — a USP is what they call it — and I get into the food bank as a board member and start learning about the food bank, and it dawns on me: This is the client I’ve been looking for my whole career. Food banking, the concept of it, is just so pure and makes so much sense.
In Florida, there are literally tens of thousands of non-profit organizations, and yet the average person can’t name a handful of them, probably. My argument is as non-profits we need marketing and communication more than the for-profit world does. If people don’t know about what we do, they won’t get inspired, and they won’t get involved.
When someone’s hungry, they’re not just hungry. They usually have multiple challenges. Hunger is a symptom of root causes. If you have a preponderance of low-paying jobs in a community and you have a lack of affordable housing, right there you have issues.
COVID-19 has made us feel more vulnerable. A little bug that’s invisible can take us down, literally. Some people will move beyond it quite quickly, but for a segment of the population, this will stick with them.
There are some who believe that the people who need emergency food are lazy, that they’re not working, that they’re leeching off the rest of society. That is far from the picture. Here’s who we feed: One in four children are suffering from food insecurity — one in four! So about 25% of the people, maybe a bit more, who are getting food from us are kids. Another 20% are seniors. These people have worked their whole lives. They served their country in the military, and they’re living on fixed incomes. There’s another percentage of people who are disabled, mentally or physically, or both. A lot of those people are invisible to the rest of society, but a lot of them can’t provide for themselves. And about 15% to 20% are homeless.
At an elementary school in a low-income area of town, a retired guy worked with some of the kids to plant green beans on a little plot of land. One day, I got a call in my office, saying there was a special delivery, so I go down and there are five or six of these little munchkins, third-graders, and they were all so proud. They were holding this cardboard box, and it was decorated on the outside with smiley faces and glitter and, just barely covering the bottom of the box, there were some green beans. They said they wanted to present their first harvest to Second Harvest. Man. Jeez. That’s what I call a mission moment. It demonstrates that everybody can help. Everybody can make a difference.
Read more in Florida Trend's July issue.
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