Friday, April 24, 2015

FOOD FOR ALL ERA 21: What Ever Happened to FOOD FOR ALL?

After the farewell party in February 1998, Linda and I decided it was time to step away from involvement in the new FICAH/FOOD FOR ALL organization, take some time to heal from a year of trying unsuccessfully to mesh our grassroots, participatory culture with the new parent organization’s top-down corporate mentality, and explore options for our next phase. It quickly became obvious to us that Michael did not welcome any advice from us, and that the “old” FICAH officers had no interest in continuing the volunteer structures we had spent years developing. We actually heard of a quote from one of them that they were viewing our merger as an acquisition. In other words, a “take-over.” They wanted our name, which they officially adopted for all their consumer programs four years later. After 9-11 the name “crusade” became problematic, although they had already been thinking about the name change.

Campbells FFA 2.jpeg (2)

Michael Donkis was now in charge as CEO. Within a few months the FOOD FOR ALL office was moved from Redlands to a warehouse near the Ontario airport, more convenient for Michael’s commuting from his Melrose Avenue apartment and his flights to the FICAH office in Washington, DC. I have to give Michael some credit. He tried to honor his firm promise that FOOD FOR ALL’s year-round program would continue and hopefully be adopted by more retailers. For the next couple of years it did actually expand on the east coast, largely due to the FOOD FOR ALL staff members Michael kept on to handle the installation and merchandising tasks. But he simply was not able to manage the volunteer grant boards, the store ambassadors, the ongoing education and training involved in sustaining the organization as before the merger. That was neither his expertise nor his interest. I must add that had Linda and I stayed and I worked on my own ego issues as “ex-CEO,” the new organization was in for a rocky few years in any case.

Within four years some decisions of Michael’s would put the organization’s capacity to honor international grants at risk. He spent about a quarter of a million dollars on a consulting firm to develop a new financial system for tracking the donations coming from retailers and the grants going out to local agencies, only to abandon the project after two years and return to the system Jenny Foster’s husband, Ev, had set up in our first two years. This resulted in the organization’s board having to delay the allocation of international grants for about a year. I suspect this may have been part of the reason that Michael left about three years after we did. Shortly after this FICAH hired an ex-food industry lobbyist and marketing person, Denis Zegar, as CEO, closed the Ontario office, and let the staff go, except for one former food industry marketing person working out of his home. This left the organization with a total of four staff.

The good news is the FOOD FOR ALL program was still appealing to the food industry due to downsizing the organization and the dedication of the volunteer board of directors who hung in there through some rough years. John Benner, formerly chairman of FOOD FOR ALL, as treasurer until 2002, helped get the organization back on track. The other good news is that the retail supermarket operators now became the “deciders” of where the grant funds would go, replacing the small army of local grant boards we had recruited and trained. I say good news because even today we hear about these funds going to many of the local projects we funded early on. FICAH continued to raise money from the food industry to support the international self-help projects; and FOOD FOR ALL grants from the 10,000 supermarkets eventually carrying the year-round and holiday programs continued to support the local anti-hunger agencies.

In 2002 I requested an annual report, after hearing virtually nothing from the organization for four years. I received a cordial letter from Tom Moran, Manager of Administrative Services of Food for All: Self-Help Solutions to End Hunger. It was accompanied by an annual report, the first I had seen since we left. I was pleased to see that many of the retail supermarket chains we had approached were now listed as FOOD FOR ALL participants. I was also glad that FOOD FOR ALL was now in 41 states and the District of Columbia, that $2 million annually was now being provided in grants, and that $35 million had been invested in self-help anti-hunger projects in the United Stated and worldwide.

My next inquiry into where FOOD FOR ALL had gone since 1998 was in March of 2015, as I was preparing to write this blog entry. Imagine my surprise! FOOD FOR ALL has been renamed ‘Making Change.’ Dennis Zegar, then CEO of FOOD FOR ALL, in 2012, recommended it to the board, after determining that FOOD FOR ALL had grown beyond addressing hunger, and obtained the pro bono services of a global advertising firm, which came up with the new name. Mr. Zegar stated it this way: “We think this new brand identity will enable us to basically explore any program without being tied to food.” The board officially made the change in February 2013.

Denis Zegar died as a result of a bicycle racing accident in August 2014. The chairman of the newly named organization stated: “We are working to establish a protocol for the organization moving forward. In the meantime there will be no interruption in the programs we offer to our retail partners.”

After learning about the new name and Mr. Zegar’s death, I researched the history of FICAH/FOOD FOR ALL as it is found in about 45 pages of articles in Supermarket News, the primary news publication of the supermarket industry, stretching from August of 1997 to August of 2014. I found myself being proud of what we began back in 1985. I could actually see the vision we had of getting the entire food industry behind the hunger issue had come to fruition, at least in part. It had to come about the way it did, with the industry in charge. But the original mission of supporting self-help solutions and getting at root causes of hunger remained in the hearts and minds of at least some of the industry leaders.

By the year 2000, fifteen years from the founding of both FICAH and FOOD FOR ALL, almost all of the $3.5 million was coming from customer donations at check stands. The organization was struggling to get food industry corporations to support its efforts. Our old friend/enemy “mergers and acquisitions” within the industry was still a major factor. The next year, after 9-11, there was a bit of a resurgence of industry support. And by the end of 2004 six thousand supermarkets were participating in either the year-round or seasonal FOOD FOR ALL programs.


      The Holiday Program                    The Year-Round Program

In a special October 2004 edition of Supermarket News, ‘FOOD FOR ALL AT 20,’ Jack Brown of Stater Bros. was interviewed for one of the feature stories. He actually included the story he loved to tell about encountering us in our beat-up old Honda Accord, which convinced him to support FOOD FOR ALL, back in 1990. Again my facts and his story of being the first major chain to participate don’t quite jibe. Also his version of how we came to obtain the UPC bar codes (his was: he got them for us; mine: Bill Christy our board member). At any rate Jack was quoted as saying he was “proud of the Hamiltons and of the late Paul Gerrard who had the courage to start it in his store.” I am reasonably certain none of the readers of his article, including Jack, will be reading my story.

Those of us who founded the original FOOD FOR ALL organization and program were variously described in this issue of Supermarket News. We were “community activists,” “dreamers,” “visionaries.” My favorite, I guess, is “a group of visionaries who believed the food industry could make a difference in the lives of people throughout the world.” (My only amendment would be that we believed that every day shoppers could make a difference by making a small donation every time they shopped).

Bob Emmons, who was the first chairman of the combined FICAH/FOOD FOR ALL organization in 1997, came close when he was quoted in this issue:

Though both groups were formed in 1985, and both sought to support charities that championed self-sufficiency for the less fortunate, FICAH and Food For All prior to their merger had some significant differences. The former was funded primarily through corporate contributions of founding grocery distributor companies and directed its donations largely overseas; the latter raised the majority of its money from consumer contributions at retail stores in support of local charities.

Paul Gerrard died in May of 2004. I attended his memorial at First Baptist in Redlands and spoke briefly of our friendship and his support. Jack and Debbie Brown were there as well as a number of California supermarket operators.

A Supermarket News article in November 2007 noted that, according to CEO Denis Zegar, FOOD FOR ALL revenues had reached more than $5 million the previous fiscal year. The number of retail participating stores now numbered 8,000. Fifty-three million dollars had been raised for anti-hunger programs since 1985. A January 2013 article, published just before the name change to ‘Making Change,’ reported that the total raised since the founding of FOOD FOR ALL was $73 million. And there were now 10,000 participating retail outlets.

So for nearly thirty years, through earthquakes, riots, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, wars, and drastic economic downturns, FOOD FOR ALL has continued to grow and hold at least some of its original vision of addressing the causes as well as the effects of hunger. It even managed to weather the many food industry mergers and consolidations over the years. The unfortunate bi-product of the point-of-purchase program being controlled by the retailers themselves was that the international grants have dwindled to less than $100,000 in total grants each year. And it will have to be seen whether the name change to ‘Making Change’ will carry the organization for another three decades. The latest literature from the organization indicates that it has over the past few years been turned into a marketing program for retailers and suppliers and therefore lost much of its original power.

In 1985 an organization was founded because of an idea of a supermarket shopper, who happened to be married to me. In 1986 a supermarket operator took a chance because he looked at her idea and said: “This could end hunger.” In 1987 a marketing VP of a supermarket chain said: “We’ll be happy to participate in your pilot project.” In 1988 another VP of a supermarket chain on the east coast said: “I’ve been waiting for you to call.” In 1989 a VP of a small northern California chain said: “We’ll install your program in our stores.” I don’t remember much after that. So you can rely on all the previous episodes I have written as true or the rantings of a deluded visionary.

FFA Office MH (2)  

The next and last chapter of my story will be an attempt to articulate the real legacy of FOOD FOR ALL.

1 comment:

  1. I have on my desk a brochure to send to you called A Simple Gesture, founded by a member of our congregation who also wants to build a sharing relationship of food within our community. Westminster Presbyterian Church will be the initiating congregation for this project of keeping food pantries stocked. Much THANKS to you and Linda for your pioneering spirit in following a dream to a multi-million dollar end.