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Food Deserts: Kyle Waide of Atlanta Community Food Bank On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

Support local efforts to increase access to affordable housing. So many food insecure families spend an extraordinary amount of their monthly income on housing due to increased housing costs. Imagine devoting 50% or more of your income to your rent or mortgage. Alleviating that pressure would significantly increase their ability to access healthy food.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kyle Waide.

As President and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Kyle Waide oversees the distribution of over 100 million pounds of food and grocery products each year through a network of 700 local and regional partner non-profit organizations that feed those in need across 29 Georgia counties. Prior to being named CEO in June of 2015, Kyle served for three years as the Food Bank’s Vice President of Partner Operations, leading the organization to record-breaking years of food distribution to the hungry.

Prior to joining the Food Bank, Kyle held several management roles at The Home Depot Inc. in disaster relief, corporate responsibility, community affairs and store operations.

He also previously served as part of the management team that created and launched Charity Navigator, the nation’s premier charity evaluation service. Kyle is a graduate of Harvard University. He currently serves as the Chair of the Southeast Regional Cooperative and the Vice Chair of the Georgia Food Bank Association. Kyle also is a member of the National A liate Council for Feeding America, for which he also chairs both the Food Sourcing Advisory Committee and the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. He serves on the boards of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Goodwill of North Georgia. He is a member of the Leadership Atlanta Class of 2015, the Rotary Club of Atlanta, the Community Advisory Board for The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc., the Super Bowl LIII Host Committee Advisory Board, and the Committee For A Better Atlanta. Kyle resides in Atlanta, GA with his wife, Christina, and their three children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in small towns in the American South. A lot of the kids I grew up with lived in food insecure homes and experienced the challenges of poverty. It was obvious even at a young age that those kids also didn’t have equal access to the kinds of opportunities in life that I did. And this was especially true for Black kids. These were my friends and my teammates. It bothered me then that they had it so much harder than I did. It bothers me today that their lack of access to opportunity at a young age really shaped their lives. So I’ve been motivated to do what I can to help level the playing field for kids and families who remind me of my friends growing up. That led me to a career in the nonprofit sector, including my current role at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, where I get the opportunity to help families get the resources they need to have a better chance at thriving in life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There’s no doubt that the most challenging and rewarding experience in my career has been our work over the past year or so responding to the pandemic. We had just completed a big capital campaign and construction project to build our new food bank headquarters and distribution center and moved into the new facility on March 2, 2020. We were so excited. Ten days later, the economy began shutting down as the COVID threat quickly accelerated across the country and the globe. We quickly had to adapt everything about our operation so that we could respond to a dramatic increase in demand for food assistance. And mind you we were still unpacking boxes and learning how to find the bathroom in our new building. In the months to come we increased our food distribution volume by more than 60%, dramatically grew our fundraising, and experienced extraordinary visibility in the media and across the community. I’ve never been more proud of a team than I was of my colleagues in how we worked together to respond to this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I wouldn’t point to a particular tipping point but to two ways in which I’ve evolved over time that have helped me grow my effectiveness as a leader. First, as I experienced setbacks or disappointments in my career, I began to be more accepting of who I am and less afraid of failure. That’s allowed me to be more comfortable in my own skin, to be more authentic with others, and to be more confident when facing adversity. Second, as I lived through setbacks and learned from them, I also began to recognize my limitations individually and my dependency on others. That’s helped me become a better listener, a better coach, and more realistic about setting goals and assessing risk, two critically important aspects of leadership.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In my case, I’ve been fortunate to get help and support from a variety of colleagues and mentors along my journey. But in particular, Bill Bolling, the founder of our food bank, has had the biggest impact in my life and development as a leader. Bill coached and mentored me when I first joined the food bank and he helped me adopt a bigger perspective about the role of the food bank in our community and the role I needed to play as a leader. He taught me that our impact is much more than the amount of food we move each day, it’s also about how we engage others to get involved in our work and grow our collective capacity to fight hunger.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Humility has helped me recognize and accept my own limitations, listen and learn from the people I lead and the people we serve, and to continue finding ways to improve myself and my team even in times of great success.
  • Optimism allows me to instill confidence, excitement and purpose in myself and my team, even when we’re facing extraordinary challenges.
  • Resilience is so important. The biggest achievements in my career have all involved overcoming adversity. Having the ability to absorb disappointments, learn from them and push forward has been critical to my journey as a leader.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I don’t have a favorite quote per se… there are so many, and I always seem to find one when I need inspiration. That said, I remind my kids every day to work hard, have fun and be nice. I try to do that too, and I think it’s a pretty good way to show up in the world.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

Food deserts are generally considered to be places where there is insufficient access to affordable, nutritious foods, including but not limited to fresh fruits and vegetables. They can occur in urban neighborhoods where there aren’t any quality grocery stores. They can occur in suburban and rural communities that lack proximity to a grocery store. Residents of food deserts who lack a reliable source of transportation are often forced to shop at convenience stores or gas stations, where prices are higher than full-service supermarkets and selection is typically limited to a small assortment of processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar. According to a study provided by the USDA, about 23.5 million people live in food deserts, and nearly half of them are also low-income.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

People living in food deserts may have limited access to supermarkets and other food retailers offering healthy and affordable foods. Even when convenience stores and small grocers stock nutritious foods, they are often too expensive for people with a low income to afford. People living in food deserts may therefore be more reliant on food retailers or fast food restaurants offering a more affordable but limited variety of foods. Unhealthy eating habits increase a person’s risk for many kinds of health issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and more. For children, unhealthy eating habits within the first few years of life can significantly affect a child’s ability to grow properly.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

Food deserts are brought about by a number of factors. They are typically located in low income areas, and more often than not these areas do not have easy access to transportation. Lack of disposable income combined with a lack of transportation typically leads to the purchase of fast foods and processed foods available at a corner store. This leads to an increase in heart disease, higher incidence of obesity and diabetes.

It will take education, economic empowerment, access, and, ultimately, a concerted effort to address intergenerational cycles of poverty and racism.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

The Atlanta Community Food Bank works to end hunger with the food, people and big ideas needed to ensure our neighbors have the nourishment to lead healthy and productive lives. Far too many people in our own community experience hunger every day, including children, seniors and working families. Through more than 700 nonprofit partners, we help approximately 750,000 people get healthy food every year.

Our work is not limited to food deserts. The majority of food insecure families live in communities with abundant access to food. However, they don’t have enough financial resources to meet all their basic needs — housing, food, utilities, transportation, healthcare, education, etc. And so they have to make tradeoff decisions, choosing between buying food or paying for other expenses like the utility bill or filling a prescription. By distributing large volumes of essential food and groceries in hundreds of sites across our community, we help food insecure families get access to the food they need, whether they live in food deserts or not. This year, we provided close to $180 million worth of food and other resources to families in metro Atlanta and north Georgia.

Eliminating food deserts will require a combination of public policy innovations, community organizing and entrepreneurship. We need policies that drive investment in under-resourced communities — i.e., working with grocery chains to open stores in these communities. We need policies that connect low-income families living in food deserts with enough resources to meet all their basic needs. We need policies that support urban farming and farmers markets. We need communities to self-organize and identify solutions that work in their communities to increase food access. We need to invest in entrepreneurs who develop innovative businesses or nonprofits that increase access to food in food deserts and other communities with high levels of food insecurity.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I am most proud of the network we’ve built. The food bank doesn’t distribute food directly to clients, except in a handful of sites. We depend on a large network of partner organizations. These are generally small, community-based organizations — churches, social service programs, etc. — that are staffed primarily by volunteers, people who are committed to feeding their neighbors. And I’m always so amazed when I visit our partners by their dedication and commitment, and by the fact that we’ve grown this massive distribution network, where this incredibly high quality food that would otherwise have been wasted moves safely and efficiently from farms or grocery stores or big food distributors to our food bank facility and then out to these small feeding programs, where so many families can access it close to their homes. It feels like a magic trick and I’m always so inspired by seeing it in action.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Support your local food bank with funding and volunteer support. You can easily find your local food bank by visiting: www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank
  2. Support federal or state legislation that expands eligibility for SNAP (food stamps) by raising the income limit.
  3. Enhance pay or benefits for your low-income workers, making it easier for them to succeed and thrive. We’ve seen our employee engagement and productivity improve and employee turnover decline when we’ve enhanced our benefit programs. That will happen for you as well.
  4. Support local efforts to increase access to affordable housing. So many food insecure families spend an extraordinary amount of their monthly income on housing due to increased housing costs. Imagine devoting 50% or more of your income to your rent or mortgage. Alleviating that pressure would significantly increase their ability to access healthy food.
  5. Support efforts inside your companies and in your communities to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. Communities of color disproportionately experience food insecurity and are more likely to be impacted by food deserts. The same is true for women and other historically marginalized groups. There are so many efforts underway right now where companies and organizations can get involved to make a difference. Doing so can help reduce food insecurity, not only for the groups mentioned above, but also for our communities generally.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?

There are a number of interesting and innovative solutions that have popped up in the Atlanta area. The Carver Market is a nonprofit healthy market and grocery store located in south Atlanta that has increased food access in their neighborhood. MARTA (our local transit agency) is operating MARTA markets, which are small fresh produce stands located at MARTA stations around the city in areas with more limited access to fresh food. The FoodWell Alliance is a nonprofit working to support urban farmers and community gardens through capacity building and other programming. Our Food As Medicine partnership with Grady Healthcare and Open Hand Atlanta is providing access to healthy food and nutrition education at the Jesse Hill Market to Grady patients and the surrounding community. And there are many more smart, creative experiments taking place. The challenge for all of them, and for us as a community, is finding a way to make these solutions more sustainable at a larger scale, rather than demonstration projects. We need to identify solutions that are financially viable in ways that reach more people. I believe doing that is achievable, but it will be a big challenge.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

In our experience, close to 40% of the food insecure families we serve are not eligible for SNAP benefits, the federal food stamp program. This is because their incomes are greater than 130% of the federal poverty line. For a family of three (1 adult, 2 kids), that poverty line in 2021 is $21,960 in annual income, which means if a single parent with two kids earns more than $28,548, that family is ineligible for SNAP assistance. Does anyone believe that a family with less than $30,000 a year in pre-tax income can reasonably afford to meet all the basic costs of housing, food, healthcare, childcare, education, transportation, and so forth? The constraints that family faces make things exponentially harder to do well at work, do well at school, stay healthy, and invest in the future. We need a more honest, realistic understanding of what it takes financially for a family to really have a chance of getting ahead, and use that as a standard for determining SNAP eligibility. So the law I’d like to change is to raise the income limit for SNAP eligibility to a level that is grounded in sound economic and social science research.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

There are so many amazing options here, but if forced to pick one I’d probably go with President Obama. I admire his humility, optimism and intelligence and would love to explore long-term solutions to poverty and food insecurity with him. I’m confident I’d learn a lot, laugh a lot and take away some great ideas, a few dollars and some amazing new connections.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit us at www.acfb.org, follow us on Twitter and Instagram @ACFB or on Facebook at ATL Food Bank.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey

Entrepreneur | Investor | Connector | Inventor