Vicki Escarra, President and CEO, Feeding America

Vicki Escarra, President and CEO, Feeding America

Since joining Feeding America in 2006, when it was known as America's Second Harvest, Vicki Escarra has shepherded the organization through a significant re-branding process, coordinated federal government support which resulted in the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, and helped develop an ambitious new plan for the organization to assist tens of millions of Americans struggling with hunger. Today, Escarra is helping Feeding America meet the rising demand for food and food services at foodbanks across the country.

PND recently spoke with Escarra about how Feeding America's plans have shifted as the recession has dragged on, the importance of corporate support to the organization, and steps the Obama administration has taken to reduce hunger in America.

Philanthropy News Digest: Citing a 30 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance at foodbanks across the country, Feeding America recently announced that it will attempt to distribute nearly three billion pounds of food to thirty million Americans by 2010 rather than 2012, as originally planned. How do you plan to achieve that ambitious goal?

Vicki Escarra: Well, first, I want to clarify that the 30 percent increase is an average. Some of our foodbanks — in Los Angeles and Mississippi, for example — have seen requests for emergency food assistance increase by 40 percent to 45 percent. So there is even greater need in some parts of the country.

As far as the new timeline goes, we felt like we did not have a choice but to try to close the gap between the people who need food right now and the food that's available. Fortunately for us, donations from food manufacturers and retailers are up — we'll close out our fiscal year with donations up more than 22 percent. That includes a significant amount of food — about a quarter of all the food we receive, in fact — from the federal government. And federal support is increasing. President Obama's stimulus package included $150 million for USDA to purchase additional food for foodbanks, while USDA secretary Tom Vilsack has announced additional support for programs to try to help lower-income families with food. But, ultimately, to meet our accelerated goal, we will rely heavily on all our supporters — federal, private, corporate, and nonprofit.

PND: You've received some large corporate gifts of cash and food recently. How important is corporate support to your plans for expansion, and how concerned are you about such support if the economy doesn't improve over the next few months?

VE: Corporate support is very important to us because, number one, companies like ConAgra, Kellogg, General Mills, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Campbell's, Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Super Value provide us with huge amounts of food and funding. But some of them also give us access to their employees, which is a great resource for us. Wal-Mart, for instance, is giving us roughly one hundred million pounds of food this year, they provide us with a significant amount of funding through their foundation, and they have two million employees who do a lot of volunteering for us in the communities we serve.

Corporations also are hugely important to us from a co-branding perspective. General Mills is a good example: they provide us with foundation funds and a lot of nutritious foods, plus they put Feeding America's name on many of their products and have partnered with us in sponsoring the TV show "The Biggest Loser." Those kinds of things really help get our name out there.

Now, obviously, with the economy in trouble, we're concerned about funding. But corporations are in business to make sure they get a good return for their shareholders — and we know that consumers value brands that have a good social and/or community focus. So a lot of these companies really value having a partnership with Feeding America, and I feel we have enough breadth of support — at two hundred and fifty major corporations and counting — that we have room to grow, even in this economy.

PND: What do you hope to see the Obama administration do to combat hunger across the country?

VE: Luckily for us, hunger is really a nonpartisan issue. Nobody, Republican or Democrat, wants to see kids go to school hungry, or see senior citizens who've worked their entire lives and are living on a fixed income not have enough food. So we're lucky in that we have a lot of support from both parties.

That said, President and Mrs. Obama have been very involved since their Chicago days in the work we do, and Michelle Obama continues to volunteer with us in D.C., which is a great sign of support. And we're already seeing encouraging actions from the administration, including the commitment by the president and vice president to end child hunger by 2015 by, among other things, strengthening the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which focuses on improving free and reduced school meals programs, the Summer Food Service Program, and other efforts to feed children. We find these commitments and efforts to be reassuring signs that we'll continue to have federal support during this time of unprecedented need.

PND: What's the best way for concerned individuals to help address the ongoing hunger crisis in America?

VE: First, people can educate themselves about how pervasive the issue of hunger is in America. Many people don't know that one in eight Americans is struggling to get enough food for themselves and/or their families. Secondly, people can get involved, either by volunteering or by giving money directly to us or to a local foodbank. Those are probably the two best ways people can help right now.

PND: The New York Times recently reported that a huge number of newly unemployed professionals are seeking volunteer opportunities, creating a corps of volunteers that, in some cases, has overwhelmed local nonprofits. How are foodbanks and other safety-net organizations utilizing the influx of volunteers?

VE: Oh, we always have something for our volunteers to do! We've worked with roughly a million volunteers at more than 63,000 agencies around the country, which is largely how we deliver food through our pantries and soup kitchens, Boys & Girls Clubs, senior assistance homes, et cetera. And with demand up an average of 30 percent, as you noted earlier, that means we have that much more work to do. So the influx of volunteers is great for us. We recently held our annual meeting in Orlando and had 180 volunteers pack more than 7,000 boxes for the Orlando foodbank in preparation for hurricane season — boxes, should they be needed, that will help get a lot of families through a really tough few days. We love our volunteers. They're really instrumental in helping us do our work.

— Lauren Kelley