Food Deserts: Rick Whitted of US Hunger On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine
Published in
13 min readJul 29, 2021

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Understand it’s not just about food. We should be solving hunger by solving housing, healthcare issues, and other socio economic issues (such as transportation). We need to begin addressing these issues holistically.

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 Rick Whitted.

Rick Whitted is the President & Chief Executive Officer for U.S. Hunger (formerly Feeding Children Everywhere), a global nonprofit feeding families today and uniting them to a healthier tomorrow. Before his appointment as CEO in March 2020, Rick served on USH’s board of directors, as Board Chair. Rick has a background as a speaker, author, and workplace consultant in addition to more than 25 years in the banking industry. He is a graduate of Stetson University and Nova Southern University where he received a BA in Political Sciences/American Studies, and an MBA, Business Administration and Management, respectively. He has been married 24 years to his loving wife, Lavisca, and together they have raised three children in Central Florida.

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?

The short version is I was in the financial sector and banking for 27 years. During that time, I wrote a book around managing your career. I started doing workplace consulting for private companies and most recently managed the southeast region for JPMorgan Chase’s municipal and nonprofit banking group. That is where I really learned nonprofit banking and what a healthy nonprofit should look like fiscally. I sat on the board for Feeding Children Everywhere (Now U.S. Hunger) and already had a passion for the mission. Becoming the CEO wasn’t planned, but as someone who has lost everything before, I was inspired to give back. What I remember most from losing everything from a failed business, and my grandmother and family going to local food pantries and bringing food back for my wife and I. At that time, dignity was a really hard barrier to ask for help. From that experience, my wife and I always felt that providing groceries to families would be a part of our future. When the opportunity opened for the U.S. Hunger CEO position, it was my wife who reminded me that this is what we always said we wanted to do. Giving up a stable career path was a risky move, but one I am grateful I made.

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

About 30 days before I was set to start as CEO, we realized just how real this pandemic was. I had just left a 25+ year career to lead an organization, and before day one, 90% of our revenue was gone almost overnight. I knew there would be a long road ahead, but it forced a pivot to technology and innovation that completely altered how we think about, act, and respond to hunger.

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 write about this in my book, “Outgrow Your Space at Work,” but there was a pivotal time where I was coming off a great loss, relocating to Dallas, and at the same time entering the ranks of management. Having lost everything, I realized just how much I didn’t know. I shifted my focus to serving people. For me, workplace culture became a mission. I decided that I would not just manage my employees; but serve, support, mentor and build relationships with them. That pivotal realization kickstarted my “tipping point.” Any success after that was an outgrowth of learning to put people first. Putting people over profit, and not losing sight of the fact that business is about people.

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?

Hands down, my wife. I have had very highs and very lows, but from the start to the end, my wife has always been there. When we lost everything, my wife continued to support and encourage me. I’ve had a lot of great mentors over the years, but she’s been the one constant that has never left my side. The reason that I am whole at work is that I am whole at home. That is because of my wife…hands down!

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?

1 — Humility. It’s important to realize you don’t know everything. Even if I think I am right, it doesn’t mean I have thought through all the scenarios or pitfalls of my decision. I only know what I know. Others know and see what I don’t know. Dropping your pride to fully hear the other side is important, even if you don’t completely agree. Oftentimes, your team sees what’s behind your head. A lot of great ideas in business come from hearing another person’s opinion and point of view.

2 — Servant leadership. I prioritize putting people first and knowing more about a team member’s family than they know about me. Learning to respect and value the things my people care about, helps them respect and value me as a leader. It also helps me tap into what matters to them most.

3 — Authenticity. The key to authenticity is transparency. People may like you or hate you. You can’t control that. What you can do is make sure they know the real you. With my team and my Board of Directors, I run to — not away from — the hardest conversations first. It breaks down walls and makes people comfortable with who you are. I personally deal with difficulties. I am super flawed. I don’t try to hide that. I don’t feel pressured to answer all the questions. I deal with what’s in front of me and our organization openly and honestly. During the pandemic, fiscal issues became hard and it would’ve been easy to not address it with the team. Instead, we were honest about where we were and addressed our team members’ concerns openly and honestly. Yes. That approach scared some people away. But the great majority of our team felt respected and appreciated. So they stayed. Authenticity matters, because it’s so akin to honesty.

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

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” — John C. Crosby

I owe the success of my career to my mentors. Some of the key successes we have right now at U.S. Hunger were ideas inspired by mentors who took the time to listen and encourage me in the right direction.

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?

Simply put, food deserts are areas across the country where accessibility to healthy food is difficult. There are neighborhoods where there is a fast food store, a check cashing store, a liquor store, but no big chain grocery store or farmers market. So even if there is food, it’s not healthy and the healthy options are definitely not affordable.

It’s important to note that the exact definition may vary depending on the geographic location (ie. rural and urban food deserts). It varies on accessibility to transportation. If I do have transportation, an area can be a food desert if it requires me to drive a significant distance to get food. If I don’t have transportation an area can be a food desert if I don’t have to walk to a source of healthy food.

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?

That is a big question, but it’s easy to answer with our data. Our data shows that it’s not just about hunger. The biggest intersection we see is between hunger and health. 75% of our clients live in a food desert, and more than 60% of our clients self-report that they are battling one or more chronic illnesses.

Managing these chronic illnesses in the home requires specific diets so healthy food is critical, but you often have families choosing between their next meal or their medications. This often results in the quickest and cheapest option, typically fast food. A data point that really highlights this is that obesity was #19 on the list of self-reported illnesses last year. This year obesity is #4. So it’s access to “healthy” food that is the issue.

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

I believe it’s the philosophy throughout our food assistance system, which views hunger as a sickness. When in fact, hunger is really just a symptom. Because of that, our system addresses hunger as if just providing food is the answer; but it never asks why the person is hungry in the first place. By just feeding and not asking questions, we don’t understand the root causes. There is little awareness of the real issues. In over 70,000 hunger stories, not one of them was about food. But rather housing, healthcare access, economic issues, transportation, and other determinants of health.

There is also a lack of collaboration. Organizations that do address these issues, don’t share information or work together. Often because they view one another as competitors to grants and funding sources. To solve food insecurity, there has to be a multi-pronged collaborative approach.

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?

First, we use the voice of our clients to determine the root causes of hunger. Through our Full Cart Virtual Food Bank, clients self report on the socio-economic issues that led them to ask for food in the first place. We use the power of their own story to gain understanding. This leads to actionable intelligence that I believe could help organizations, companies, and governments to work together.

Second, we eliminate the barrier of accessibility and affordability through our Full Cart Virtual Food Bank. This program allows us to deliver a box of fresh produce or shelf-stable food directly to the homes of those in need nationwide. Through our Full Cart Fresh box, families receive 10–12 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the farm to their front door. We have already served more than 128,000 households through Full Cart alone.

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 proud of the dignity and discretion our teams provide to those we serve. Since we launched our virtual food bank at the beginning of the pandemic, more than 70,000 families have trusted to share their story with us. Most often, when our team speaks with individuals they are just grateful someone listened without judgment. It has transformed who we are and how we address hunger.

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 — Understand it’s not just about food. We should be solving hunger by solving housing, healthcare issues, and other socio economic issues (such as transportation). We need to begin addressing these issues holistically.

2 — Take a data-driven approach. Business corporations all take a data-driven approach to their next step. We have to bring this into the world of nonprofit and mission based organizations. This means we have to raise our standards for just-in-time data analytics and reporting transparency. Otherwise, we are addressing yesterday’s issues next year and that solution is almost always too late.

3 — Provide dignity in every interaction. You can’t really begin to address the needs of an individual until you address that they have value and worth. We do that in how we treat them, what we say to them and what we give to them. We provide a high premium, often organic box of produce, because it says you are worth it. What is most central to dignity is having a voice. When one has no voice they are not afforded dignity. Too often in the work we do in the area of food assistance, we don’t ask their story. We serve them quickly and feel great that we gave them food. But taking the time to hear, and catalog, their story gives them a voice; and, it informs us on what root causes are driving the need.

4 — Provide discretion. This value is critical because we underestimate the effect of shame. It is incredibly difficult to have a conversation about why you can’t meet Maslow’s most basic hierarchy of needs — feeding myself or my family. A platform where you discretely apply and don’t have to go somewhere to find the food can go a long way. That’s why we use a virtual application system and ship the food in boxes that look like an Amazon or Blue Apron package. This way the box left at the front door doesn’t inform their neighbors that they are receiving food assistance.

5 — Collaborate. We have to reach across the aisle to bring awareness and fight the issues alongside each other rather than competing with each other. The philanthropic community is beginning to understand this, but there needs to be intentional collaboration across the various root causes of hunger. Food organizations, housing organizations, healthcare, education organizations, and more should all come to the table to discuss how to address these root causes together.

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? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

One of our early partners in our Full Cart program is Rio Salado College in Arizona. This large and mostly virtual community college uses our Full Cart program to provide food to students who were identified through guidance counselors as needing help with food. Rio Salado really saw the need for a lot of their students that were also working or living on Indian reservations and food deserts across the country. Dr. Greg Pereira and Dr. Shelly Dennis have been incredible partners in educating us about food insecurity amongst students.

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?

The federal government needs to play a chief role in collaboration. They can do so by establishing intermediary liaisons that bring various organizations together to have a real influence on addressing these issues and foster collaboration. They can also do this through fundings that tie various social determinants of health issues together, instead of siloing funding for specific social ills. Lastly, they can encourage innovation. Through several USDA grant submissions, what I have seen is a check the box mentality that rigidly stifles innovation and new ideas. We can’t seem to get out of our own way. We should take a page from the innovation and creativity of the business community.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see a movement that opens up online SNAP to innovation in the nonprofit sector to get fresh produce and groceries to those that have access issues. Currently, SNAP is primarily geared to big box retailers. Its policy favors corporations instead of creative, grass-roots efforts who have the understanding and accessibility to the people they serve on local and national levels. We have a nationwide distribution channel to get food across the continental US. But currently, I would have to invest in retail brick and mortar across states to do so. That just doesn’t make sense.

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. :-)

Jamie Dimon is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase and a well read and informed thinker. I admire how he has always wanted to address real issues head on, and how their organization uses data to drive their next steps. Similarly, we take a data driven approach at U.S. Hunger. Letting the data speak for what’s really happening at a local, regional and nationwide level with hunger in the U.S.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Those interested in learning more about U.S. Hunger, our programs, and impact can visit our website www.ushunger.org or follow us on social media!

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

Thank YOU!

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