Q&A: Bill Clark, Executive Director of Philabundance

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Interview by Felicia D’Ambrosio

Born in Delaware County and educated at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, William J. Clark’s career in the food industry took him from Philly to New York City to Chicago, where he launched W.J. Clark & Co., a specialty-foods producer whose profitable sale allowed him to retire at age 42.

Not one to lounge around, “I took six months off and I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “I had to get back to work.” Since 2001, his work has been overseeing the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization, Philabundance. As Executive Director, Clark has a unique perspective on everything from the logistics of distributing 21 million pounds of food per year, to the changing face of hunger in our area.

How have things changed since you started ten years ago?

I think that no talk about the last ten years is complete without talk of the recession. The first recession in my lifetime in ’82 was a sharp, short-lived thing; then again after the dot-com bubble burst and after 9/11. They hurt us a little, but not too much.

This recession, which really started in 2007, is worse today than any time since it started. We haven’t come out of the recession in the terms of the number of people who need help. It is crucial we maintain the safety net, and keep people from agencies and direct service programs out in the neighborhoods helping people. Before the recession, the number of people who needed help the most lived in mostly the inner city or the far suburbs; either way, densely clustered.

Now the people who need help are the unemployed who used to have jobs, and every village and hamlet in our area has been affected. We’ve moved more distribution sites to areas that previously hadn’t had enough need for us to be there. The hunger safety net has had to grow, and at the same time, we’ve had to become much empathetic to people who are so reluctant to accept help. Someone who has lived in multigenerational poverty addresses their need for food in a completely different way than a proud Union laborer who lost his job and now can’t feed his family.

This “changing face of hunger” is being discussed in the national media right now. What have you seen from your position?

In the beginning of the recession, we started getting comments and letters from direct mail drops, appeals to donors and our newsletters. Notes apologizing that they couldn’t help us, because they needed food now themselves. More and more of our donors became clients; they said ‘You know, I’ve been a supporter, I never thought I’d be here getting this food.’ This has become a macabre recurrent theme of the past five years. But there are green spots! We got a donation the other day that said ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to send a check to you, I was getting food, and now I have a job, here’s a little bit to help you on your way.’ We are integrated into people’s lives that way, they reach out to help their neighbors, and we are there when they need, too.

Do you have an opinion about the proposed asset tests for Pennsylvania’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)?

I understand concerns politicians have about fraud abuse, but with regards to this particular program, they are ill-placed. The USDA recently gave Pennsylvania an award for having the lowest fraud instances of the fifty states… an asset test to get much-needed support is ultimately redundant when you have a means test. Most states are seeing that, and eliminating the asset test. Pennsylvania is one of the only states to re-install asset testing… It’s going to prevent people who really need help from getting it, and you’re not going to improve the fraud rate. We give out 20 million pounds of free food a year, if someone wanted to scam the system they could come take all they want. Instead we see people who really need help who won’t ask for it. Shame and self-esteem is a high price to pay for free food. The problem is not that too many people use it, it’s that not enough people use it.

We are going to be documenting very closely whether this [asset testing] does anything they say it does; if it’s really hurting people, we’ll try and get it overturned. This is a basically a tragic failure of good intentions.

What is different about Philabundance that helps you stand out in a crowded field, where many organizations are competing for charitable donations?

It starts with our overall philosophy: the way to end hunger isn’t just to put food in front of people who are hungry. To truly end it, we need to build a community-wide intolerance for the existence of hunger among us. We need to make it a whole-community effort to end hunger. We have programs that orient to seniors, to young school children, to young singles. We try to take the entire demographic map and engage people. Social media is the way of the future for the younger generation; seniors are more likely to communicate with us through the post office. We will interact in every way we can.

Food banks are also different in that there is a huge need for volunteers. We have 16,000 volunteers a year: individuals, groups and families who work side by side with us.

What role do corporate donations of food play in an organization like Philabundance, when grocery stores like Giant and Acme can now sell their surpluses in discount stores, rather than donate to food banks?

This is one of the problems food banks across the country are facing right now. Food donations are actually shrinking in the face of increased demand. There’s lots of reasons for this, but a major one is the food industry is getting more efficient all the time. In a way, their donations to us are their mistakes – things they couldn’t sell or one reason or another – and they are working hard to reduce that. At the store level, “seconds” like older inventory, surplus production and products that are dented [or] have ripped labels, are being culled from shelves as they are restocked. As recently as four years ago, we were receiving 4 million pounds a year [of these seconds], but today we receive very little nonperishable foods, because grocers can now put these items in a bargain bin, and people will by them at a discount. Or they can take these products and sell them to brokers.

What has increased is the amount of food that grocery stores give us that is perishable. Chicken or ground beef, instead of being thrown out, is frozen to stop the clock on it. We come by and pick it up once or twice a week, so we’ve effectively shifted what grocery stores give us, from nonperishable foods to perishable.

What new initiatives is Philabundance working on?

One of the things that’s filling up a lot of my day trying to make work is an entirely new program in Chester, Pa. The problem is that the emergency food system of cupboards and pantries was always designed to handle a small percentage of the people in need, assuming most people would go to commercial grocery stores. As more supermarkets have abandoned the city, you find food cupboards that had served 10-15 percent now need to help 50 percent of the population. With no community partner [like a grocery store] to help, they get overwhelmed and close. Now you’ve got a commercial food desert and a charitable food desert.

We are now working with commercial partners to go into these desert areas with some success, but in the deepest of the food deserts they can’t make it work. We’re going to address this by building a nonprofit grocery store, close to a supermarket in size, located in Chester. Ironically, the building we are looking to take over is the last supermarket to operate in Chester that closed ten years ago. We need to provide food access, not just emergency food supply.

Why did you leave the corporate world, where you had been very successful, to take on a nonprofit with the seemingly impossible mission of eliminating hunger? What inspired you to take this executive directorship?

After I retired, I served very intensely on the board of my son’s school – he has dyslexia. I really enjoyed it, and was really intrigued by the way nonprofit organizations work. In some ways it’s more fulfilling than the corporate side. Someone told me about the Philabundance job, and unbeknownst to me, the board was looking for someone with food industry experience. We are a logistics-heavy, with three or four trucks going out every day, so we operate just like a food distributor. The job gave me a chance to make a difference in the world, and Philabundance access to my experience in the food world. I wish I’d known earlier how fulfilling serving in the nonprofit world is, I’d have done it earlier.

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