Feeding the Hungry: Patti Habeck
The data is discouraging. With 1 in 7 people in eastern Wisconsin without enough to eat, there are people hungry in our neighborhoods and in our schools.
Patti Habeck joined Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin in December 2011 because she was excited by the food bank’s potential. In April 2017, Habeck became president of the
organization. Her focus is not only on ensuring food gets to those in need, but also helping put an end to hunger.
JOINING FEEDING AMERICA
When Habeck packed her bags for college, she intended to pursue a career in dentistry. After getting involved in several activities on campus, she abandoned dental school and followed her interest in leadership.
After graduation, Habeck spent time as a hall director in Colorado and Platteville, Wisconsin. Habeck and her husband, Kevin, eventually moved to Appleton where she took a job as director of education at The Building for Kids Children’s Museum. This was her introduction to working for a nonprofit.
“It was a great learning opportunity for me to understand how to use creativity and programming to solve problems,” says Habeck. “I discovered how to use a community organization to fix some community issues.”
After seven years with The Building for Kids, Habeck was ready for a new challenge. She took a position at the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region as community engagement officer. She worked with other area foundations as well as high net worth individuals and their personal foundations.
“My interest and expertise was in having philanthropy meet nonprofits in a space that really made a difference,” adds Habeck.
When she was approached about an opportunity at Feeding America, Habeck wasn’t actively looking for a job. She agreed to check it out and discovered she could dramatically impact a growing community problem.
ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION
When Habeck joined Feeding America, the organization’s main office was in Milwaukee and there was a small food bank in Omro. She worked out of her car with a cellphone and laptop, putting thousands of miles on her car the first few years as she explained the benefit of Feeding America to the community.
It didn’t take long to complete the capital campaign for the current building off Hwy. 41 in Appleton. “We opened this building a year ahead of schedule,” says Habeck. “It wasn’t just because of our fantastic fundraising, it was more about the need — the need had gotten so incredible.”
The Omro facility had a 200 percent increase in demand. It couldn’t hold enough food or volunteers to serve the community.
Today, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin is the leading hunger-relief organization in the state with food banks in the Fox Valley and Milwaukee. It serves 600 food pantries, meal programs and emergency shelters and distributes over 25 million pounds of food per year. As a food bank, they work on a very large scale, getting donations by the truckload or in large poundage and distributing this to their network. Most of the product is donated, although Feeding America occasionally needs to purchase items to fill in the gaps.
“We work with growers, grocers, manufacturers, farmers or anywhere you go to get large amounts of food,” she adds. Feeding America uses a shared maintenance fee business model to cover transportation expenses and freezer costs.
“This is something people don’t always understand — they think we are selling our food,” says Habeck. “We don’t actually sell our food, what we do is share the operational costs with our food pantry partners, so food they aren’t able to get on their own they can get from us at a much-reduced cost.”
She explains meat may cost a pantry 19 cents per pound, although Feeding America writes grants to help offset the cost so a pantry may pay 6 cents per pound over the course of the year. Food pantries can spend less time worrying about where they are going to get food and more time focused on the individuals.
Habeck explains 97 cents of all contributions to Feeding America go back into the program. For every dollar donated, Feeding America can provide enough food for three meals.
“We are incredibly efficient. Our greatest interest is to be a healthy, transparent and collaborative nonprofit, which supports the work of the
excellent network of food pantries, meal programs and emergency shelters in our communities,” adds Habeck.
There are 200 Feeding America food banks across the country. Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin belongs to the national network but operates as an independent entity. “We are a local organization, employing local people and using local volunteers,” adds Habeck.
A TYPICAL DAY
As president of the organization, Habeck spends time in the Appleton location as well as traveling to Milwaukee and visiting members.
“It is really important to me to get out and visit with our pantries and meal programs. It keeps things in perspective,” she adds. “Sometimes
when you work in a facility like this that is so large you lose perspective on the individual need. It’s my goal to get out there, meet the people in
need and hear their stories firsthand.”
Habeck supervises a staff of 52 and communicates with the organization’s board members. She also forms community partnerships.
“Our mission is to solve hunger and Feeding America can’t do that on its own. We have to do that with partnerships not only with food pantries
but also with community entities that are also working in the poverty space,” she says.
Habeck explains no two days are the same. She tries to pay attention to where the need is greatest and look for creative ways to help solve
hunger. The meal gap is getting larger. Habeck reveals they would need 200 million pounds of food per year to serve all those in need.
“We know what the need is, but the idea is also to push down that need,” she adds.
“I spend a good amount of time working in the solve space — the innovative space — looking at how we can shorten the line, not just feed
the line,” says Habeck. This means looking at social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Feeding America is currently working on produce innovation and exploring the possibility of creating a food hub as solutions to healthy food resources.
“Feeding America has the ability to change the food system at scale — we are large enough and have enough leverage and relationships,”
she says. “If we can change what we bring in here we are actually changing what goes out in the community, therefore changing people’s
eating habits by presenting more nutritious, healthy food and altering the food system.”
When looking ahead, Habeck explains she’s in it for the long haul. Her hope is to help strengthen Feeding America’s presence in the
community. “We want to be seen as a collaborative organization that works in conjunction with others, leading from behind,” she adds.
Want to help? Habeck explains they rely on the community for food, funds and friends. “You can donate to us or to a local food pantry or you can support Feeding America financially — we don’t get government assistance so we rely on private donations — or you can become a volunteer. We have hundreds of volunteers each day. The more volunteers we have, the more food we are able to get out.”
Habeck welcomes the community to visit Feeding America. They have an open-door policy and invite everyone to take an interest
in ending hunger. “We invite everyone who wants to provide hunger relief to come together to collectively find solutions.
That means that every organization and individual is welcome at our table or we will come to theirs. Our efforts are collaborative
and we believe that only together can we solve hunger,” she concludes. To volunteer, or for more information, visit feedingamericawi.org. w