Brian Walker, President & CEO, Kansas Food Bank
The cover photo was taken in the Flint Hills north of Strong City by Arthur H. Davis and has been reprinted with his permission.
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Sunflower Foundation > 2018 Annual Report > Features > Brian Walker, President & CEO, Kansas Food Bank
Brian Walker’s first job was at a grocery store in his hometown of Newton, Kansas. At first, he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, but he grew to enjoy the food business so much that he stayed with it. He didn’t know then that the job would set him on a path that led to advocating for thousands of people in need.
Demonstrating his leadership abilities early, Brian was soon overseeing operations and supervising the produce departments of several stores. As he continued to advance, he became responsible for opening new stores in Liberal, Newton and Wichita, communities where the demographics were very different from each other. There was, however, one common denominator: the need for healthful, nourishing food.
A Lifechanging Decision
When the company he was working for switched owners 22 years ago, Brian decided to seek other professional opportunities. A former boss who was serving on the Kansas Food Bank Board of Directors heard Brian was looking and invited him to apply for a position. “I went to interview over the noon hour, and I had a new job before I had lunch,” he recalls.
Back then, Brian knew very little about food insecurity or the way food banks operate. But he did know about operations – how to move, distribute and package food. Just as important, he had an impressive list of contacts and partners from his years in the grocery business. He quickly learned, however, that there was a great deal more to meeting the challenges of food pantries in underserved communities than he realized. But the more he discovered, the more personal his work became.
Invested in the Mission
He quickly became invested in the mission of the Kansas Food Bank, which operates in 85 counties throughout the state. He learned that just as with a financial bank, there are deposits and withdrawals. “Food goes in, food goes out,” he says. “In my job,
I had to manage the logistics of making sure pantries got their products on time and in good shape. In some ways, it was pretty cut-and-dried. You know you’re doing important work, but the personal nature of it doesn’t hit you until you visit a pantry.”
The moment that crystalized the impact of his work came during his first Thanksgiving Giveaway. It was a frigid 30 degrees outside and there were 300 people in line at the pantry, some without coats, and some who had been waiting for as long as five hours. He began to understand not just intellectually, but viscerally, the life-changing impact the food bank has on people’s daily lives.
At the pantries, everyone has a story. A single mother who lost her job because her car broke down. Grandparents with meager incomes raising grandchildren. Seniors with overwhelming medical bills. College students who need to choose between making a tuition payment and eating dinner.
Some of them, perhaps, made poor choices, Brian admits. But, he says, they can’t change the past, and they need to deal with their hunger and the hunger of their families today. “Clients who visit the pantries often have no support systems, and one unplanned event can have catastrophic consequences. One day they’re in line at the grocery store, and the next day they’re in line at the food pantry.”
But simply supplying people in need with food will not eradicate hunger, Brian points out. “Yes, we have to take care of their immediate needs, but there are so many contributing factors to hunger. We also need to address all the other pieces, like workforce development, healthcare, transportation, fair wages and childcare.”
The Kansas Food Bank works hard to provide foods that are truly nutritious, and also to educate clients about making healthy choices. Both are very important, Brian says. “We know how malnutrition and less healthy foods impact overall health, and we understand that those costs are passed on in the system,” he adds.
Driving the Mission Forward
But supplying nutritious foods in a hunger relief setting is trickier than it sounds. Brian recalls that over the past decade, food banks across the country began to re-examine the way they “did business.” Rather than relying solely on non-perishable, shelf-stable items – many of which have low nutrient values – food banks started to shift their focus to fresh, healthful foods such as produce, dairy and lean proteins. The challenge, said Brian, is that aggregating, storing, repackaging and delivering perishable foods requires much more space, especially cooler space, and a different set of operations and volunteer workspace. In order to start delivering healthier food, Kansas Food Bank’s physical footprint needed to change.