With 40 years of experience, we understand that providing food for someone will alleviate the issue of hunger in that moment. However, to get individuals beyond the point of relying on food assistance, we must provide additional resources and services, and we must restore hope. The Foodbank’s current President and CEO Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols shares the vision for moving the effort forward.
Ruth Jones Nichols, Ph.D.
President and CEO, 2016–Present
Most significant milestones: The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore has achieved several milestones over the last five years — namely, the development of a new strategic plan. Our 2017 Strategic Plan prioritized feeding people today while addressing the root causes of food insecurity essential to eliminating hunger tomorrow. In addition to executing the strategic plan, we built a more robust infrastructure, which included a focus on advocacy. Finally, moving forward to establish the Western Tidewater Branch as a more holistic model for food banking marked another tremendous milestone for the organization.
Most difficult challenges you faced? Helping people understand the difference between hunger and food insecurity was one of the most difficult challenges we faced. When we understand the difference, we can then acknowledge that the potential solutions for sustained change are not the same. Facilitating change management also presented new challenges. Our work has evolved significantly in the past few years — signaling our need to evolve as an organization, team and robust network of distinct partners. It is also important to acknowledge the Farm Fresh closure and the challenges we faced, in terms of a significant reduction in food and funds from a once valuable donor and strategic partner. The most recent challenge has been the pandemic, which completely disrupted our business model but also then presented our greatest opportunities. We were forced to evolve overnight and uncover innovative ways to continue serving the community with a greater focus on some of the most vulnerable populations.
What were some of your greatest opportunities? We have a unique opportunity to create an environment where people are open to exploring disparities in food insecurity throughout our service area and acknowledging the root causes of such disparities, which are often outside of the control of people experiencing hunger. Secondly, COVID presented us with unexpected opportunities. We talked for years about our evolving model and what it means to be innovative and reimagine food banking. During the pandemic, we were able to collaborate with non-traditional partners to address immediate needs. We also expanded our food distribution locations and bolstered our service delivery model through online ordering, home delivery to seniors and food hubs where support services are co-located to improve food access in places where people live or receive other assistance.
What were some of the greatest needs? Storage is still a need, but it’s not just storage. We need a new Foodbank that will accommodate the new vision for food banking with space to move food in and out as well as space to offer core services and partnerships to address root causes of food insecurity. An equity lens guiding our work moving forward remains a necessity for our organization to ensure we target resources to communities with the greatest needs. Everyone should have access to healthy food, but how we achieve that goal should be tailored based on the needs of each community.
What excites you the most when considering the Foodbank’s efforts moving forward? What excites me the most are the people who are involved in our movement. It’s a combination of people who feel very strongly and passionately about feeding our neighbors and people who feel very strongly and passionately about ending hunger through addressing root causes. There is diversity of thought, perspective, and lived experiences within the people who have been engaged with us for years as well as new and emerging leaders in this movement. These individuals will, collectively, achieve our ideal vision for food banking in the future. They are also positioned to have conversations about the intersection of race and food insecurity or other complex social issues. Acknowledging that intersectionality is a critical step toward creating transformational change.