My First Twenty Months

CEO, Peter Vogel, looks back on his journey to the Food Bank & reflects on his first year and a half!

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My father, a college professor, had several philosophies he attempted to instill in me as I was growing up. I’m sure I lost several of these nuggets as I created my own path in life; however, one mantra did stick:

“If you view everything as important, then nothing is important.”

I’ve spent my career in non-profit organizations. Prior to South Michigan Food Bank, I spent 9 years as CEO of Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada. I think we all try to find our niche in life, and several years ago, I decided that what I really like doing is taking a non-profit with potential and strengthening the organization to better meet community needs.

I knew that this Food Bank had that potential because of the outstanding support from the Food Bank Council of Michigan and the commitment of other Food Banks in Michigan to caring for their community. But most of all, I saw a community here that wants to support a Food Bank, a place where people care about their neighbors; of all the things that are needed to make something successful, that’s the most important. The day I moved to Michigan, January 26, 2019, it was 35 degrees below zero — welcome to Michigan!  (Fortunately, I had grown up in Nebraska, so this wasn’t quite the shock it could’ve been.)

After working at the Food Bank for a couple of months, I came to identify 3 concepts I needed to view as important:

  • We were not connected to the community as well as we needed to be.
  • Functionally, we were still a 1980s model Food Bank.
  • South Michigan has a lot of really good people, and it’s a great place to live!

After talking to several other Food Banks, I came to realize that most Food Banks around the country came into existence during the ‘80s and that many were still operating in a similar fashion.   Adjusting our operations to meet current community needs was clearly important but not a quick fix nor an immediate priority (but a great topic for a future blog).  This simplified my focus, and I began a tour within our 8-county service area, meeting people and groups who were passionate about strengthening our community.  After multiple discussions, I was able to categorize their thoughts regarding our Food Bank into 3 concepts:

  • Our name at the time was: The Food Bank of South Central Michigan.  Almost every group outside of Calhoun County did not consider themselves to be living in “South Central” Michigan.
  • I kept hearing some version of “We know you are the Food Bank for Battle Creek, but we appreciate you helping us a little too.” Ouch!
  • Many people did not understand what we do

Our first moves were to be more inclusive by changing our name to “South Michigan Food Bank” and to modernize our logo. (FireKeepers marketing staff designed our new logo — thanks, FireKeepers!)

While discussing these concepts with my staff, I found responses too frequently included “we can’t do that” or “we don’t do things that way.”  Given that we are a service organization and an important community resource, we had to take a deep look at staffing.  Over the next few months, we adjusted staffing and found excellent internal talent but occasionally in the wrong position.  Over the next few months, our agency culture improved dramatically, and with this, our ability to build stronger relationships and trust.  These changes began opening doors, although it became apparent we would need to adjust behavior and services before we could determine the honest needs of the community. 

First things first, we would need to figure out how to distribute more food to our neighbors facing food insecurity. In 2019, we distributed 19% more food than we had the prior year. Most of that was focused on our rural communities and areas that had been underserved in previous years. We were on track to have another good year this year, and then COVID hit…

Stay tuned for Peter’s next post on how South Michigan Food Bank took on COVID-19.