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Food Deserts: Travis Arnold of Feed the Children On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

Hunger can’t be defeated with silence. It is important for nonprofits to communicate with business leaders to discuss what’s happening in both the U.S. and around the world. These innovative leaders provide a unique perspective to both social and economic occurrences. They also have the power to come together to provide resources that can change communities and potentially eliminate or reduce the number of food deserts. These strides aren’t possible without two-way communication.

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 Travis Arnold.

Travis Arnold has served as president and CEO of Feed the Children since 2017 after extensive service to the organization in multiple leadership roles, including the President of FTC Transportation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Feed the Children. Arnold has a broad and varied background of experience in business development, operations, transportation, and executive leadership. The Oklahoma native joined Feed the Children in 2001 after serving more than 20 years in a variety of management positions with United Parcel Service (UPS).

Since 2018, Arnold has served on the Oklahoma Advisory Committee for the United States Global Leadership Conference (USGLC). The committee consists of leading business, faith, nonprofit, and military leaders who stand up and say our role in the world is important and we should not diminish diplomatic programs at our U.S. State Department.

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 career path?

I began my career at UPS which provided me with many opportunities to grow and develop my management skills. After more than two decades of managing teams in the for-profit industry, I wanted to see how those skills could be applied in the nonprofit sector. My logistics background was a great asset since Feed the Children has 5 distribution centers and transports millions of pounds of food and essentials each year both across the United States and internationally. I started in 2001 — an interesting time for the organization — but I knew I was in the right place after just a few months. I learned how meaningful our work is after 9/11. Feed the Children was very active in the response efforts and were at Ground Zero on the second day distributing supplies. Those early days have stuck with me and seeing our mission in action and the impact we can have is something that inspires me even today.

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

My first trip to Central America with Feed the Children was an enlightening one for me. I had the opportunity to witness our feeding and education programs in action in three different communities ranging from the foothills to the top of Mount Volcancito, Guatemala. At one site, there was no electricity or running water. During this same trip, I had an opportunity to experience the struggles of the families in the area. The women were working in the fields to provide for their families. While we were visiting with the children, a vegetable truck came through honking and alerting the residents he was open for business. None of the women even looked up from their work — they knew they couldn’t afford the fresh vegetables. I paid the vegetable truck driver to allow the women to shop which allowed the women and children to have fresh vegetables. All of us need to remind ourselves that simple acts can have a great impact and to be thankful for what we have.

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?

One of the most interesting developments, and a true turning point in my career, was when I started to see our employees and individuals around me become change agents. By surrounding myself with these individuals, it not only encouraged me to think outside the box to achieve success, it has also allowed our organization to thrive.

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?

My father was successful in his career and well-respected in his field. His advice was to always surround yourself with individuals who are more educated and smarter than you, to treat them with respect and to be fair and they would help you to be successful.

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. Integrity: This is paramount in the business world, but it is equally as important when we are serving families across the U.S. and around the world.
  2. Courage: In order to make the tough decisions, I have learned courage is critical. Being courageous allowed our organization to pivot and reach families, even during the height of COVID-19 when many businesses were closing and services were being interrupted, by employing innovative distribution methods.
  3. Be a good listener: My successes — and the successes of Feed the Children — would not have been possible without surrounding myself with skilled and knowledgeable individuals. By listening to their experiences, it has allowed me to grow personally and professionally and to lead our organization’s efforts to defeat hunger across America and around the world.

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

My favorite quote is “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” The premise of that quote is that you have to challenge yourself and your team to do something different which will help improve processes in the organization. That’s what we do every day at Feed the Children. We are constantly looking for innovative ways to defeat hunger. We know that we can’t do this alone. We have a national network of community and corporate partners who help us further our mission.

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?

A food desert is an area with limited access to affordable and healthy food. Generally speaking, it is an area where people must travel more than one mile to purchase healthy food in the city and more than 10 miles in rural areas. According to recent data from the USDA, nearly 40 million Americans live in food deserts. In Virginia alone, there are more than one million people living in food deserts.

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?

Studies have shown that Americans who live in communities with limited access to healthy food options are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Food deserts are indicators of more than just socioeconomic differences. They can indicate public health and safety concerns for those living in the area. Families who cannot afford to shop in grocery stores, or don’t have transportation to get to them, will purchase their meals from the closest option. This can cause higher than usual rates of chronic illnesses to develop in the population. Along with medical bills that may exceed what a family can pay. Living in a food desert can significantly decrease life expectancy compared to individuals living near a grocery store. Consistent access to healthy food is truly a life or death situation for many Americans.

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

While there is no single cause of food deserts, there are several contributing factors including access to reliable transportation. This barrier prevents low-income families from being able to travel longer distances to buy groceries. In fact, the USDA has determined about 10 percent of all census tracts in the United States are food deserts. That means more than 13.5 million people in these census tracts have low access to sources of healthy food.

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?

We are constantly looking for innovative ways to defeat hunger. We know that we can’t do this alone and we are fortunate to have a network of community and corporate partners, who help us further our mission.

Currently, we are working with our corporate partners Tyson Foods and Americold to conduct a 10-stop tour in rural areas across America. This is important because many of these areas are food deserts and through our partnership, we are providing nearly 20 million meals to children and their families. These items include not only shelf-stable food items, but also protein items which are not always readily available. This is not the first initiative of its kind. We have long-standing relationships with several corporate partners that allow us to provide healthy protein options as well shelf stable items.

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

At any given time, there are more than 2.5 million homeless or at-risk school-age children across America. So, one of the most uplifting moments for me was when Feed the Children distributed its one millionth backpack as part of our Homeless Education and Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.) During the distribution event, we provided Samuel, who was seven at the time, a gift bag filled with ready-to-eat snacks as well as several other items to mark the occasion. This milestone was a special one for me.

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. Nonprofits and civic leaders need to continue to work together to eradicate food deserts. Access is more than just providing more food; it needs to be holistic. We’ve seen children at our summer feeding sites who need food, but they also need transportation because the closest site to someone in a rural area may still be miles away. We have been a part of initiatives that look to provide fresher options in corner stores, gas stations, and other retailers to attempt to solve an access issue. We can provide food, but sometimes that’s not the only barrier families face.
  2. We recognize the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty. We work with partners to host distribution events where families and teachers receive free books and school supplies. This allows vulnerable families to use those funds for food and essentials. We also work to find ways to get books into the hands of children to help prevent summer slide. This summer, in addition to opening our five Teacher Stores across the country, we are also hosting several pop-up teacher stores and back-to-school events where we will provide thousands to books as well as truckloads of free school supplies where families need it most.
  3. Encourage children and families to try foods they may be unfamiliar with. Through discussions we have learned about shopping habits of families. Often when faced with the decision of healthy or affordable options individuals and families are forced to choose the affordable option. A key to success is helping families learn how to prepare affordable, healthy meals that taste good. We have partnered with chefs across the country, as well as some of our corporate partners, to help with this. We want to get nutrition into the hands of kids, but we want to make sure they eat it. We once had a hummus option as part of our summer feeding program, but many of the children had never seen it before. They were not sure what hummus was and were skeptical. Once they tried it, a lot of them liked it.
  4. Use all available tools to increase access. By using social media, websites or other outlets, we can educate families not only about available resources, but also about healthy foods and how to prepare them. By offering information on how to shop for affordable, healthy food as well as how to prepare affordable meals, we are working to eliminate barriers, one-by-one.
  5. Hunger can’t be defeated with silence. It is important for nonprofits to communicate with business leaders to discuss what’s happening in both the U.S. and around the world. These innovative leaders provide a unique perspective to both social and economic occurrences. They also have the power to come together to provide resources that can change communities and potentially eliminate or reduce the number of food deserts. These strides aren’t possible without two-way communication.

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.

We have great community partners who work to reach people where they are. Just a few examples, we have a partner in Oklahoma who converted an old café building to serve free meals to the community. Another partner took old mail trucks and cargo vans and turned them into free food trucks that use items from Feed the Children to serve meals to children in apartment complexes. A partner in Tennessee goes door-to-door in a low-income apartment complex to distribute food and books. We realize these efforts wouldn’t be possible without the support of our corporate partners and individual donors who provide resources that allow us to continue our work.

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?

We must reconsider and evaluate many of the regular requirements for food assistance programs and streamline eligibility. This will allow us to continue to provide food to those who need it the most. I also believe that decision-making authority should be provided to the most local level possible so leaders can be empowered to respond to their community’s unique needs.

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.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of large nonprofits came together to work collaboratively to help meet the needs of families, and I would like to see this trend continue. Now, more than ever, it’s important for everyone, everywhere to come together to ensure that we do not let our neighbors down when they need us the most. Many nonprofits work in the same areas and serve the same families and communities. Imagine the impact we could have if we continued to coordinate our efforts to ensure those living on low incomes, or who have been affected by an unexpected job loss, have access to nutritious foods.

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.

I had the pleasure to meet Roger Staubach years ago and would enjoy a private meal with him. There are several reasons, both personally and professionally, that I admire Roger. He graduated from the Naval Academy, went on to serve four years of active duty service in the Navy, played 11 years of professional football with the Dallas Cowboys and led the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories. Outside of sports, he founded the very successful Staubach Commercial Real Estate Firm. I found him to be a man of great integrity and someone who would always be willing to teach and mentor others. More importantly — especially with all his accomplishments — he also remains very humble.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Facebook: Feed the Children (U.S. and International): @feedthechildren (https://www.facebook.com/feedthechildren)

Twitter: @feedthechildren (https://twitter.com/feedthechildren)

Instagram: @feedthechildrenorg (https://www.instagram.com/feedthechildrenorg)

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/feed-the-children/

YouTube: @FeedtheChildrenOrg (https://www.youtube.com/user/FeedTheChildrenOrg)

Website: feedthechildren.org

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

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