Thursday, August 14, 2014

FOOD FOR ALL ERA 3: The Preparation

You may not believe this. It took us almost a full year from incorporating FOOD FOR ALL, Inc. on July 1, 1985 until May 7, 1986 to get the very first test of our idea in an actual supermarket. Linda was still working full-time at the University of Redlands. I was working part-time as an adjunct faculty member at the same institution. We had a volunteer board of five committed individuals. We had no money. We had no displays. We had no printed promotional materials. We had no clue how we were going to sell this idea to the grocers. We had no organization beyond this. But we had "an idea whose time had come." And we had friends. I still do not understand what had captivated the imagination of Paul Gerrard, an independent grocery store owner, who was our champion from the very beginning. I discovered that Paul sat in his upstairs office at his store and I could go in the store, ask to see him at any time, go up the stairs to his office and pick his brain on what our next steps should be. In November of 1985 he invited me to go with him to a board meeting of the Southern California Grocers Association to make a presentation of our idea. I was a little at a loss as to what I would say, but Paul encouraged me with "just tell them your idea. Don't worry. You'll do fine."

The meeting was a dinner meeting, so everyone had dined and wined sufficiently that they were apparently in a receptive mood. Steve Koff, the paid executive of the Association, ran through a list of issues confronting them as small businessmen (most were, like Paul, independent grocers with one to five stores--the largest member at the time was Hughes Markets, an LA chain with about 50 supermarkets). Following the business session Steve introduced Paul to introduce me. I wasn't sure how to break the ice with this mostly male, almost all conservative group. So I decided to lighten the atmosphere and at the same time let them know a little of my orientation.

"My dad was in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression and was a lifelong Roosevelt New Deal Democrat. I've never really spent much time with or got to know any Republicans. Now I am getting a little worried. I'm actually beginning to like some of them."

That did it! I spent just a few minutes telling them the idea for placing a display at every one of the checkout stands in their stores, the most expensive, coveted piece of supermarket real estate they had. And to have them donate their employees' time to managing and accounting for donations their customers would be making. Of course there was not an immediate line asking to sign up to be the first. But I did receive their endorsement, in the form of a letter from their President, encouraging their members to consider participating in the FOOD FOR ALL program when it came to their area.

Fortunately, present at the meeting were a few receptive grocers who heard something that would later on assist us greatly. Bob Inadomi, President of JonSons Markets, based in East LA, a small group of six markets, mostly serving the Hispanic market, was a friend of Milo Lacy and Paul Gerrard. Bob had just taken over as head of his family company following his father's untimely death. What won Bob over was when he discovered that I was a graduate of Drake University. His father was a graduate and a Trustee of Drake. Bill Christy, then CEO of Certified Grocers of California, a large wholesaler serving the independent grocers, will play a major role in our future development of FOOD FOR ALL. Both of them are to become members of our Board of Directors, as well as good friends.

But we still had some major hurdles in front of us. We knew that customer support would be the key to sustaining the program, once we convinced the grocers to take on the issue of hunger with a year-round program like FOOD FOR ALL. You would think this would be a no-brainer, since the food industry's business is "feeding" people. But most grocers' charitable giving was very short-sighted and limited to brief promotions. So, we had a vision that had to be sold, and created strategies that would help us sell it. We enlisted a group of about ten people with some experience with anti-hunger efforts and international development projects: Food banking, religious agencies, food policy expertise, foundation executives, our ICA colleagues, and grassroots activists. We asked this group to meet with us in all-day sessions about 6 times during our first year. Their primary task was to design the formula for giving grants to local and international efforts to end hunger as an intractable issue.

At the same time we used our ICA experience with methods of participation to conduct about seven "Hunger Forums" in the counties of Southern California. These served as formal ways to bring together those concerned about hunger and both get their input on how to apply money grants to the issues in their area and to begin a grassroots volunteer structure of support. Out of these forums will come the volunteer Local Grants Advisory Boards (LGAB) that would review applications, conduct site visits, and make recommendations for FOOD FOR ALL local grants. So before we had our first display in a supermarket, our Board had enough input to determine that 75 per cent of FOOD FOR ALL donations would go to support local anti-hunger efforts and 25 percent to long-term international development projects run by non-governmental agencies. And, more importantly, we had the structures and mechanisms designed to make it work.

During the year of preparation for giving away money we did not yet have, largely due to Linda, who organized the facilitated events and met with countless community leaders, and Georgianna McBurney, who headed up the Funds Distribution Advisory Board (FDAB), we also implemented a couple of other support strategies and structures. We knew we had to have some influential food industry folk on our side, so we formed the Food Industry Advisory Board. Asking these busy owners and executives to give us "advice" proved to be the way to find out who would stand up and say "count me in" when we asked. It also amazed us just how much respect and influence was carried by one individual. Paul Gerrard was on the boards of the Southern California Grocers Association, the California Grocers Association, and Certified Grocers, and was known and respected by virtually everyone we needed to reach.

The other support structure came about as we shared our idea and vision for a "hunger-free society." This will evolve into our Public Relations Advisory Board, made up of marketing, advertising, public relations, and media persons, many of them connected to the food industry. Initially it took the form of the Redlands Steering Committee and the plan for a "pilot project" to test the FOOD FOR ALL idea. Doug Moore, University of Redlands President, Jan Englebretson, Editor of the Redlands Daily Facts, Carol Beswick, then Mayor of Redlands, our own Board member Rich Blakley, pastor of Redlands United Church of Christ, were key to gaining the support of community leaders and forming this group, which included politicians and service club leaders.

Sometime during early 1986 I was assigned the task of designing the display rack and cards that would carry the FOOD FOR ALL message at supermarket check stands, and to work out the logistics of how donations would get into the cash register and from there to the store's accounting department and from there to the FOOD FOR ALL account. Again, we relied on friends and their friends for help. Albert Landeros, a local artist, donated the design for the first header cards to adorn the rack which I had come up with after many visits to supermarkets, camera and ruler in hand. Finally our first version, a clunky, heavy, metal frame that was adjustable up and down and had removable hooks, was approved by our board for the initial test.

The critical pieces were the FOOD FOR ALL donation cards. Many sessions with mock designs took many hours of deliberation, until finally, a simple 4 x 6 card with FOOD FOR ALL on the front in red, blue, and green colors, in fifty-cent, one-dollar, and five-dollar amounts, the story of FOOD FOR ALL and "where your donation goes" on the back.

We were now ready -- sort of. We had a sample display to show grocers, we had an organization -- sort of. We had a story. We had support -- sort of. We had a local Steering Committee with numerous endorsements for the idea. We did not have the UPC bar codes to print on the FOOD FOR ALL donation cards. We had written a letter to the Universal Product Code Council and received a letter back that had never had such a request and were not sure they could grant us permission for the codes we needed. That was a little setback but we knew that only about 35 per cent of supermarkets even had the technology for scanning at the time, and we were certain that the cash system they did have could handle the donations. We just didn't know how yet.

With all of this uncertainty we decided to charge ahead anyway toward testing our idea. We just needed a supermarket to test it in. Where could we find one. Milo Lacy was on the verge of reminding me that "I told you so" until one day he and I were having breakfast at Bob's Big Boy (now Coco's) and I decided to make a phone call.


  1. Loving this,so evocative of goods times long ago. Carry on, MellowMan!

  2. What a trip down memory lane! A lane, which as you pointed out Milan needed to be revisited and its story told. Good job M.