El Paso’s food bank, El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, has come a long way, and so has its new chief executive.
Susan Goodell, who came from Washington, D.C., for the CEO job, started Jan. 2.
Goodell was previously CEO at the Global Fund for Children for 3 1/2 years. But for 13 years before that, she headed the Forgotten Harvest food bank in Oak Park, Michigan, next door to Detroit, where she grew the annual budget from $300,000 to $86 million.
Forgotten Harvest’s food distribution went from 800,000 pounds a year when she started to 48 million pounds when she left.
More importantly, Goodell changed food banking forever in the U.S. and abroad, vastly increasing the numbers of children, elderly and family being fed through food pantries.
Goodell took Forgotten Harvest from a tiny food bank operation that scrounged for donations of boxed and canned foods to one that made the first deals with major grocery stores to donate tons of fresh foods and vegetables instead of sending them to the landfill.
The food bank even ran a farm on loaned acreage.
“She really pioneered the whole movement to rescue fresh produce and other perishables,” said Mark Matthys, chair of the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger board. “She helped develop the logistics to get that food safely and quickly to people who needed it.
“We really have her to thank for that development.”
Not surprisingly, Matthys said, when it came to hiring a new CEO, “she was head and shoulders above the other candidates.”
“We did have a close competition with two local candidates, but she was really excellent in terms of having the experience of growing a very small bank to a very large one,” he said. “That’s a rare commodity, so we’re very fortunate.”
Like some other executives who’ve taken a job offer in El Paso, Goodell has a story about a small but telling experience that helped her make the decision to move here.
Hers came immediately after the interview at El Pasoans Fighting Hunger when she left the offices and warehouse at 9541 Plaza Circle in the Lower Valley and sat down on the steps to hail an Uber.
“They wanted to know what street I was on, but I didn’t know and the street sign was too far away to see,” she said. “This man walked up the steps and I asked if he could tell me, but he said he didn’t know.
“So, he jogs up the street, gets the name off the sign, jogs back and gives me the name. I have run into examples like that every day that I have been here. I was looking for a home for me, my teenage son and my husband, and this just feels like home.”
Goodell succeeds Victor Nevarez, a founding board member and former chair, who took over as interim CEO in 2016. The food bank serves El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties.
Before giving El Paso Inc. the full tour of the sprawling warehouse, Goodell sat down and talked about her career, the importance of food banks and what it would take to end hunger in El Paso.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: You’ve headed two big organizations, the Global Fund for Children in Washington, D.C., and Forgotten Harvest in Michigan. Not to say we’re out of the way, but El Paso’s certainly far away. Why did you find this opportunity attractive?
When you do the kind of work I do, serving people in need, you go where you’re needed. I spent four years in international development. As wonderful as that experience was, my heart is really in food banking.
I began to look around the country, explored a few communities and talked to a few food banks. But when I came out here for an interview, I just frankly fell in love.
There are 91,000 food-insecure people here, who don’t have adequate access to sufficient quantity and quality food to meet their needs. I come out of Detroit, where the number is well over 700,000. When I think of 91,000, it’s a big number but it is doable. If we work hard, we could end hunger here.
Q: What difference is El Pasoans Fighting Hunger making today?
The El Paso food bank is doing amazing work. We are likely the newest food bank in the Feeding America network. We’re a year and a half old as a stand-alone operation, separate from West Texas Food Bank. El Paso desperately needed its own food bank.
Think of it, we’re a year and a half old, and we’re already distributing over 12 million pounds of food a year. I don’t think that’s much short of a miracle. Looking forward, if the food bank can continue this pace of growth, we’re about 16 million meals short of meeting the need here in El Paso.
The 91,000 people is probably under reported. I think it’s well over 100,000 – just my gut feeling. I can’t give you an accurate number, but say it’s right and we’re 16 million meals short in El Paso. We’re already at 12 million pounds. If we double and triple that, we’re there.
Q: Doubling and tripling your volume doesn’t sound easy.
It’s not. I don’t want to underestimate how difficult that is. But I do think it is doable if we can gain the support of this community to find the food resources, the financial resources and the in-kind donations, we can make that happen.
Q: Tell us about hunger in America and Texas.
The U.S. food insecurity rate for children is 20.9 percent. The Texas food insecurity rate is 25.6 percent. We had the eighth highest rate in the country for food insecurity in 2014, the date of the last study
Q: I assume places along the border are a lot worse than the I-35 corridor. We’re probably a lot closer to New Mexico.
New Mexico is No. 2 in the nation.
Q: Who are the neediest in El Paso?
We’re talking primarily about children, elderly and people who are under-employed. We have a pretty good employment rate in El Paso right now, but we have a lot of people who are under-employed. They’re just not making the income they need to pay all the bills and maintain their household. It doesn’t take much to put them into dire straits.
Q: How many food pantries operate in El Paso?
We have 120 plus partners that are soup kitchens, shelters and pantries accessing our foods constantly. But there are communities that are not served by them, and that’s when we use our mobile pantries to serve neighborhoods primarily.
Q: How many mobile pantries does El Paso Fighting Hunger supply?
Last year, we had 173 mobile pantries serving 23,660 households or 78,569 individuals. We distributed just under 600,000 pounds of food through our mobile pantries.
Q: What did you do at Global Fund for Children?
When you think of venture capital, this was like venture philanthropy. We worked in 52 countries around the globe with incredibly vulnerable children who have been denied education because maybe they were an ethnic minority or a girl. They’re children that have been sold into modern day slavery. They are children that have experienced some of the worst possible circumstances you can imagine.
We searched the world for the grassroots organizations that were meeting the needs of very difficult to reach children and having a tremendous impact. We would come in and invest knowledge, give then an infusion of funding, and we’d work with them for five or six years and help them grow to the next level where they would be stable and have significant resources to promote their work over time.
Q: Where did the money come from?
It came from a lot of corporate entities, individuals primarily of high net worth. It’s pretty well-rounded, but we did not have government funding.
Q: Was it mainly in Europe and parts east, or did they work in Latin America?
We were in Latin America and the Caribbean, 52 countries and offices in Washington, Hong Kong, London and Mumbai.
Q: Would you tell us about Forgotten Harvest?
When I started, it was January 2001 and we were tiny. We were probably the smallest food bank in the Feeding America network. We were providing less than a million meals a year. I was there for 13 years, and over that period, we grew exponentially.
Q: How did you do that?
In 2001, hunger relief and food banking was primarily defined as boxed and canned food. It was defined by the next church food drive or a business food drive, and the focus was really on nonperishable foods.
We began to think about the grocery store where the good food is – fresh meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables and baked goods. Boxed and canned food was great, but what about all the rest of the food out there?
We did some research and found an old USDA study that said 96 billion of food goes to waste every year in this country – one-quarter of all the food produced. In Detroit, about 50 percent of the children live below the poverty line. When you think about one-quarter of the food going in the landfill and half our children going hungry, there’s something really wrong with that picture.
So we started thinking about where that food is. It’s at the grocery store, the dairy, the farms, and on and on.
We started with a brilliant strategy – what happens if we ask? And we started asking. We asked the grocery stores, the dairies, everybody we could think of, and we started to get traction. To a large extent, we were kind of mavericks.
No one had really gone after the perishable food before. We were the first in the country to get a national grocery chain to donate food.
Q: I’ve got to say that’s amazing because that’s where food banking has gone in the last decade.
The first grocery chain in the country to donate was Kroger, and their pilot program was with us. I don’t know what percentage of grocery product is feeding hungry people today because I’ve been out of the network for about four years. But when I left, it was something like 40 percent.
Q: It would seem that somebody deserves some credit for coming up with the “let’s go ask Kroger” idea. Was it you?
It was me. But that was really only the beginning. We found massive amounts of hydroponic foods – food grown in water. We were receiving millions of pounds of hydroponic food.
Q: On hearing about Forgotten Harvest’s work in Canada and Global Fund’s international work, I think people here will immediately wonder about outreach to Juárez. Would that be possible?
I’ve done that in Canada. I think about Juárez, and I understand there is not a food bank in Juárez. It doesn’t make sense to me. There are food banks in Mexico, and they are growing. But there doesn’t happen to be one in Juárez yet.
At this point, being 10 days old here, I think I have to focus on El Paso and making sure that we focus on the needs here. Contractually, we are not allowed to take food into Mexico. There are things we could do in terms of expertise.
Q: From what you know about El Paso, what potential do you see?
I’m on Day 10 today, and I am learning as fast as I can. As I look around this community, it seems to me that we are surrounded by food banks in other places not so far away. So is there something that we could trade with our neighbors?
Q: You mean in other cities?
Yes, like Odessa and Lubbock and Albuquerque. I’ve got a call from the person who heads up St. Mary’s in Phoenix. What do they have in surplus that they could share with us, and what do we have that could share with them? I keep hearing pecans, so I’m keeping my eyes open for pecans.
So what else is there? If you think of a community of 650,000 people, an underlying distribution network feeds this community. I can tell there are cracks in that system, and we just have to find them.
Q: So you’ve got ideas already?
I’m very interested at looking at where the food bank can insert itself. In Detroit, we had the use of 120 acres donated to us. We produced our own onions, zucchini and corn.
That reminds me, in-kind donations are huge. How do we reduce our overhead? By finding sources of things that may not be hard for a business to give to us, or an individual, but would make a tremendous difference to us.
I don’t know if I have permission to tell you this, but International Paper was here last Friday evening. We beg and borrow boxes every day because you can’t distribute food if you don’t have a box. So they’re giving us a 53-foot tractor-trailer with our logo on it as a donation. We use about 5,000 boxes a month. I don’t know how many boxes fit in a 53-foot tractor-trailer, but it’s a lot. That will be a huge time and cost savings.
Q: What do you think you can do to take El Pasoans Fighting Hunger to the next level?
I mentioned that I’m very interested in the border crossing and whether there’s food there that’s going to waste. I’m very interested in what are the things that we produce locally, such as pecans, that we can trade with other food banks for things in their region that are in surplus.
And frankly, I already know where there is food going to waste. I’ve been in contact with some of my peers in Texas. The Lower Rio Grande, Arizona, those areas along the border with California that are large agriculture areas, they probably have excess produce that they would be willing to share with us for a minimal cost. I’m wondering how we can go and get some of it.
Transportation is a killer, but we have a donation of a refrigerated trailer. No tractor to pull it, though. But we do have the donation of a tractor unit, and I’m looking to get that tractor unit, so we can go get some of that produce that’s being plowed under in the fields because it’s surplus.
Q: What do you need?
I would say the No. 1 thing we need is funding. Every dollar we raise, we can convert that to seven meals for people in need. Then we need more volunteers.
Q: Do companies offer their employees as volunteers?
Yes, Starbucks volunteers were here today processing food for us. International Paper will be here later this month.
Q: How many volunteers do you have?
We had 8,800 last year.
Q: So you make pitches to individual companies for volunteers?
We do. The Chihuahuas hold the record for the most pounds of food packed in one of our shipments. We’re putting the challenge out there. Beat the Chihuahuas.
Q: How can people get involved?
The easiest thing is to talk to Joe Rodriguez directly at the main number, (915) 298-0353.
Q: What about individual giving? Can people give on a monthly basis?
You can go to our website, ElPasoansFightingHunger.org, and hit the donate button and sign up for recurring donations.