In a departure from my usual travel stories, today I am featuring an interview, which is my first assignment in a class focused on long-form blogging. I spoke with Jeff Klein, President and CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network, about his business and the kind of travel he does in his work.
With this being a travel blog, can we start by having you explain how your world travel in the past may have influenced your interest in this job?
Well, I had the benefit of some international travel over the years, both for my prior business career and also leisure travel, and I think that it was really more the leisure travel that opened my eyes to the possibility of doing something focused on an international mission. Specifically, the international travel our family did where [we renovated] a school and community center in Costa Rica, and built a home in Mexico, got me really intrigued with the possibility of doing something more service-oriented in an international context.
You mean as a career as opposed to a vacation activity? And how did you pick food?
The initial decision to move from a for-profit corporate career to a non-profit career was not driven in any specific way by the travel experiences I gave you, but the combination of travel and service made me think about that as a possibility. How I decided to move into food was pretty basic. As I thought about different possible careers within the non-profit arena, I decided to investigate a broad category I call “basic human needs” that dealt with hunger, food insecurity (which is not knowing where your next meal is coming from), areas related to staying healthy, and shelter. Hunger, to me, has always been the absolute condition you have to sort out before you can educate or have a healthier, hopeful person. So to me it was the bottom of the pyramid.
Tell us a little about The Global FoodBanking Network in particular.
Well, many people have had experience interacting with foodbanks. Foodbanks started in the U.S. in the ‘60s. A food bank is an institution that’s really good at finding where there might be surplus food in the community … it might be food that has some packaging issues, dented cans, failed product extensions that just haven’t been successful, or promotions where the date for the promotion is over and now the manufacturer has to figure out what to do with it. A foodbank is the process by which that food can be gathered from manufacturers, grocery stores, produce markets, or any place where surplus product exists that’s still healthy and safe and legal to eat, but has just lost its commercial value. Foodbanks gather that through a pretty sophisticated interaction with companies that have those attractive parcels of food. They provide storage, record keeping, and tax receipts and then they redistribute [the food] to organizations that do the actual feeding, whether they’re soup kitchens, food pantries, orphanages, old age homes, or after-school programs.
So, this is foodbanking in general. Where does the Global FoodBanking Network come in?
GFN was created in 2006 out of the organization that focuses on foodbanks in the U.S., known as Feeding America. So many countries had been approaching Feeding America about how to make this happen in [their] countries. It started to consume a lot of staff time at Feeding America, which was focused on addressing domestic hunger, so a decision was taken by the board that, as an experiment, [they would] create an organization that would focus strictly on developing and scaling foodbanks internationally, using the know-how that exists in the U.S. So that was really the birth of The Global FoodBanking Network. [Later,] the focus became, OK, let’s help social entrepreneurs all over the world create foodbanks in their communities.
How many countries are you in now?
We’re currently working in 34 countries, either where we have foodbanks that are network partners of ours, or where we’re working on a project with the short-term goal of establishing a sustainable foodbank there to meet the local hunger needs.
What are the top few countries that you’re looking to get into next?
We have active projects in Botswana; that’s one that’s fairly new. We’re working with a great team to make an existing foodbank bigger in Peru and to make a foodbank a reality in Bangalore, India. Those would be three that are pretty topical right now.
Does your work differ depending on what country you’re working in?
The basic model of foodbanks is a good place to start, but yes, the model is very, very different in different countries. In Mexico, as an example, the foodbank provides food to local people who are identified by members of the community as having a particularly difficult time either through a sickness or a job loss, etc., so the food is distributed directly to hungry people as opposed to organizations like orphanages or organized non-profits. In some countries, there’s not much food that’s manufactured or retailed at grocers. Israel would be an example of one that has abundant produce. So they do something known as gleaning, which is work with over 700 farmers who will from time to time make their production available, either because they don’t think they can sell it at a profit, or it may have some modest damage or be out of season, or they may just do it for tithing purposes. They’ll gather that produce and redistribute it, which is great because it’s very healthy. So models change based on culture, local prices, local tax law and other regulations, but the general model is consistently applied with tailoring for the local geographies.
One of the things we all learn though traveling is that we need to be culturally attuned. Can you give us an example of a place where you’ve had to change the way you talk or do business?
There are so many examples. I don’t like to speak about “Asia” [as one big place] because it [contains] many different cultures, but one thing that’s common among many of the countries is this idea of “hunger.” They view it as very insulting if they perceive that you’re telling them that you want to open a foodbank because they are not able to successfully feed their people; they see it as a loss of face, which is very significant in many of the Asian cultures. So when you address the notion of foodbanks, you really need to use different words. You can’t use words like “poverty” and “hunger.” What you do is try to convince people that it would be great to salvage or rescue perfectly fine food before it gets wasted or goes to a landfill. People usually say, yeah, that’s a really great idea! And we had this problem in India where people would say to us “why in the world would any organization want to provide free food to people?” They were convinced there was a political agenda and there was some kind of scheme to buy votes for the party that wasn’t in political control. So we had to spend a lot of time talking about why this was to supplement their activity, or a different approach that really focused on excess food that was going to be heading to landfill.
Can you tell me how it’s different to travel when you’re essentially on a mission vs. traveling just to enjoy yourself?
A couple of different ways. One is that financial resources are always in short supply, so when I do travel I tend to be very discerning about taking the trip in the first place and wanting to have my schedule be very relevant, where I can have meetings that are not just observational meetings. I mean, I have the curiosity, obviously, to see our operations, but everything I do when I travel is with the goal of making more resources available, better communicating the story, and raising awareness, all things that will help the success of the enterprise there. So I don’t leave myself a lot of time for traditional touring. I do try to engage in the culture and meet people that we’re feeding, but it’s first and foremost a very intense business experience; I’m trying to spend my time there to advance the cause locally. So that would be the first reaction; the second is that when I do my visiting, it’s not typically in parts of town that a normal tourist would want to go to. I’m seeing places where people are in desperate situations in terms of their financial status and hunger level. So in that sense it’s probably pretty different.
Do you feel hopeful about the future of food security in the world as a whole?
I try to. I think that what I can say is that a greater percentage of the world seems to be aware of the issue. I would say young people are very focused on hunger and the food waste that I talked about – the amount of food that the world grows but is not consumed, which is about a third of the world’s food, an unacceptable and staggering amount of waste. I think the world is putting some pretty intelligent, creative, focused resources against that problem and, of course, every pound of food that’s saved does not pollute, but it also feeds. In that sense I am more hopeful – that the amount of food waste that exists will be squeezed down and the beneficiary of that will hopefully be hungry people. I am encouraged by that. The world produces enough food to feed everybody on the planet, but so much of the food that we produce is wasted for commercial and logistics and distribution-oriented reasons, and sometimes, frankly, very cavalier treatment of food, where we take it for granted and are fairly wasteful just in our own consumption habits.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your organization for my readers?
The only thing is, if you want to know more, go to foodbanking,org. We’ve got a really great website that’s educational, both on the nature of the food waste problem and the hunger problem, and what we’re all about and where we’re working in the world to reduce the amount of hunger that people experience.