Strategic shift: New Gleaners CEO looks to 2017 initiatives to help shape future of food bank
By Sadie Hunter
Noblesville resident John Elliott has been five months on the job in his new role as CEO and president of Indianapolis-based Gleaners Food Bank.
Having worked previously in government, media and charitable relations for Kroger grocery stores, Elliott is looking to 2017 to be a year of making strategic strides for the organization to be as efficient as possible.
Working as a member of Feeding America, a national hunger relief nonprofit, Gleaners is one of 199 of the group’s food banks in the U.S. and has recently been chosen as one of eight to serve as a produce-mixing center.
“We’re soon to launch a pilot or test phase of the produce mixing center,” said Elliott, adding that Gleaners headquarters on Indy’s south side is the second largest in the country behind one in Dallas, Texas.
“Because we have extra square feet, we’re not necessarily the largest in terms of volume of food, and that extra capacity in the building is one reason we’ve been selected as one of eight of those regional produce centers around the country,” Elliott said.
Elliott said because of Gleaners’ purchasing power, the implementation of the mixing center will at least double the volume of produce distributed.
“This is a huge initiative, and that means purchasing produce as a co-op, which – my hope is – will have a disproportionately positive impact for Indiana farmers,” Elliott said. “The more we can buy produce, we’re at the front of the process, not waiting for produce that’s approaching expiration or is left over. If we’re buying straight from the farmer, we’re getting the freshest and highest-quality produce, just like any other wholesale buyer, with more time to distribute it, which means we’re throwing away less and more people get it. It’s about quality and quantity. It’s also really about variety, and with variety of produce comes more nutrition.”
Pantry Partners is an initiative with Gleaners Food Bank that works with local pantries to accommodate needs of clients. Pantry Partners are larger pantries by volume of clients served, like Grace Church’s pantry, the Grace Care Center, at 146th Street and Hazel Dell Road in Noblesville.
“They’re set up in the way that they operate, the hours they’re open, the mix of food that they offer, to handle a larger volume, but also to be open at a variety of hours so that we’re not unintentionally having a negative impact on the challenges families are facing,” Elliott said. “Think about someone who is working, but they’re not making enough money to pay all of their household costs. They may need help for one week out of the month with food. You don’t want to have their pantry options open only during their work hours.”
After recently receiving funding from Lilly Endowment, Gleaners will soon replace software that supports all operations and financial management. There also will be a second software replacement that will support all fundraising and donor-relations activity.
“Those are $100,000 initiatives each with all the hardware and people cost,” Elliott said. “That’s why we’re sitting here with out-of-date software. But like any other nonprofit, you sit here and think, every dollar I spend on software, utilities or trucks could be three meals. That’s something I quickly realized in this role. I’m going to wake up every morning and think about every dollar spent that means somebody didn’t get three meals. So, when you have a donor like Lilly Endowment that comes along, it’s so enabling. You don’t feel like you’ve made an either-or choice. You can do both.”
In the future, as the organization grows, Elliott said he expects there will need to be a shift in how daily donations and operations are handled and made.
“If we’re going to continue to be as efficient as we are now and meet more of the hunger need in the future,” he said, “we have got to significantly shift from loose cans coming in the back door to dollars coming in.”
BY THE NUMBERS – 2016 in HAMILTON COUNTY
“There are food pantries and families that are hungry in every community in Hamilton County,” Gleaners President and CEO John Elliott said. “Numerically, just by the number of people who are hungry, it’s one of the top counties in the state. That’s more a matter of population in the county rather than percentage. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20,000 in one county or 20,000 in another, it’s still a lot of hungry people. There’s a need for continuing education and awareness in Hamilton County. Even those who are actively involved may not quite realize how much of it needs to stay right in their community.”
- 5 percent – poverty rate
- 3 – meals that can be provided with $1
- 1,178,266 – pounds of food distributed
- 981,888 – meals distributed
- 27,150 – food insecure people (11,470 children)
- 11 – local pantries and organizations that work with Gleaners
- 288 – BackSacks distributed to children across 14 elementary schools
- 5 – mobile pantries serving approximately 100 families per month
- 60 – families to received family summer meal boxes
- $164,000 – annual funding need (does not include cost to stock 11 local pantries)