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Growing Healthy Communities Through Food Banks with David Long
We have David Long. He’s the CEO of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. He’s been charged with changing the story of how we understand the food bank and what it means to our community. David, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I want to start right off with a question that anyone who knows your background would be encouraging me to ask. Are you the first classically trained chef to lead a food bank?
I would like to think not. Everything I’ve done to this point in my career is taking me to this point, maybe I am.
Tell us a little bit about that journey from where you started, to being the CEO at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.
I make reference quite a bit when I talk to people about my career, once they look at my career and they think it’s bizarre which it is. I make reference to Steve Jobs and the Stanford address that he gave where he says, “You cannot connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect the dots looking backwards.” Everything that I’ve done in my career has led me to this point. I don’t want to sound cheesy about it. When I was approached about this position at the food bank, I said to my wife, “I don’t have a choice here.” This landed at my feet. It’s everything I’ve done from being a chef.
I started in Ireland many years ago. I worked in Switzerland. I worked in Germany. I’ve worked in Australia. I was very fortunate to follow my passion for food and cooking. When you travel as a chef around the world, people have to eat. There were always jobs available. I ended up in Vancouver. I was extremely fortunate again to work in some great hotels, Four Seasons and Pan Pacific. I took the role as the Executive Chef at the Terminal City Club. That’s a club that’s very dear to my heart. I spent ten years of my life working there. The first five years as the executive chef, I was a little crazy. When the then CEO, General Manager retired, I wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Board and said I was extremely interested in applying for the position.
There was an executive search that was done. Obviously, there were a lot of panel interviews. I got into the final fifteen. I went home and I said to my wife, “I’m in the final fifteen. This is unbelievable. I’m so excited.” About a week later or two weeks later after some more interviews and more conversations, I got into the final four. I went home and literally had a panic attack, “What have I done? I must be out of my mind to think that I could run something as prestigious and something that’s been around for 125 years as the Terminal City Club.” The Board of Directors saw something in me and they decided to give me an opportunity. I was the CEO there for five years. I absolutely loved it.
I went on and I ran another private club on the north shore in North Vancouver. My career took a bizarre change at the time. I met a gentleman who owns Secure GUARD, a security company. He offered me a position as the Vice President of Operations for a security company that has about 1,600 employees. I worked with Darcy and Secured GUARD for two years before this position became available. Everybody says to me, “Your career is bizarre. You did these things, a security company and the food bank.” A lot of the people that we deal with at the food bank are working people. It’s not your typical what people consider homelessness and things like that. It’s a lot of working people that use the food bank and make ends meet. Certainly some of our agencies in some of the places I’ve visited to offer assistance and help to the mental health awareness training that I had with security, the de-escalation of tense situations that I learned again with the security company, they’ve stood me in good stand where you have a greater awareness and empathy for certain individuals in some of these agencies.
You had been the general manager and CEO of two prestigious clubs. You’ve worked in security. You make the move to the food bank. Tell me what it was like coming up to the office on the first day to take on your role at the food bank.
My first day was at a conference in Kelowna. There are probably about 100 food banks in British Columbia which people don’t realize, from the smallest in some remote areas to us, which is the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. They call us one of the big six under six major food banks across Canada. The first day was getting to meet people from other food banks. A fascinating group of people who want to help and make a difference and to give back. It was exhilarating, to be honest. It was like, “I feel like I’ve come home. I know I can make this.”
That’s a great way to start with the community of peers and showing you the ropes.
It’s quite funny with my background being a chef and the whole thing about the food bank is we try and focus on healthy food now. I’ve had some interesting phone calls with some of my old suppliers and some guys I haven’t talked to for a dozen years. I’m like, “We’re going to call in some markers now.”
How do those conversations go?People are good and they want to help, but they just don't know how to help. Click To Tweet
One thing I noticed, people are good and people want to help, they don’t know how to help. I look at this position of trying to simplify for people how can we help the food bank? What can we do? Money is obviously tight everywhere. We’re very much of the opinion now give us money rather than food because our buying power is so substantial. It goes a lot further when we buy things. We try to tell people how they can help whether it’s volunteering their time, helping do food sorts or even helping clean the warehouse. We have some individuals who come in and help us clean the warehouse once in a while.
You’ve got a mandate for changing the story of the Food Bank. Tell us a little bit about what the perception of the food bank is and what you’d like to see it be in the years to come.
I moved to Vancouver in 1996. I’ve lived in Vancouver for quite a while. It’s a great city. It’s been good to me. I’ve had great success with different careers and challenges that I’ve taken undertaken. I always knew the food bank did food drives through your work or things would happen, you collect food or even from my kids going to school and stuff. It would be a food drive to help the food bank. When I first came here, my biggest surprise was it wasn’t what I thought it was. This is something I want to get the story out to people. I want to talk to people. I want to make some videos and show people what we do because I had the vision that a lot of people have, which is many years ago of people needing food assistance.
They get handed a plastic bag with some Kraft dinner or some bent cans of tomatoes or beans or something like that in it and that isn’t what we do. We have thirteen distribution hubs set up around Vancouver, North Vancouver, New Westminster and Burnaby. We actually set these places up like small markets and people can go through and select different produce or different things that they need.
They’re not getting a bag of something that they maybe don’t like or that they won’t use. This is a much better way to go through the systems. It’s much more dignified. We focus on food quality. We have farmers in the Okanagan. We have farmers in the Fraser Valley who want to help. There’s so much food waste in this modern world. Being a chef, that’s one of the main things I want to get behind. How do we stop the food waste and how do we get that quality food to people who need it?
That idea of the food bank is a place where people come and get that plastic bag. You still are providing direct food services to about 9,000 individuals a week across the greater Vancouver area, is that correct?
That’s correct as far as our distribution hubs. We also have 80 agency partnerships that we supply with food and they put on meal programs. It could be after school care. It could be rehabilitation services. It could be a variety of different social needs that are out there within these agencies. We have 80 of those agencies and probably a further 20,000 people get assistance through us, through those agencies. We’re somewhere in the region of 27,000 to 29,000 people a week.
How much of the work that you’re doing is educating about what healthy food is?
Part of my stance is as long as we’re providing healthy food obviously the summertime is the greatest. The fruit that we get from the Okanagan, the apples, the pears, the different vegetables that we get, and we try and supply as much as we possibly can. I am always hesitant about this education component because I don’t want to get to a point where we’re telling people what to eat. The great message for us as an evolving food bank and the way we’re changing is I wanted to give people a choice. If we have something at one of our distribution hubs, for example, beets, we would set up a station or we would set up an area where somebody can be making a beet salad where we’re showing people. I’m always hesitant about, “You have to come and learn how to do this.”
If they’re interested in learning, we have that available because again, it’s about dignity. It’s a big hurdle for some people to get over to go to a food distribution hub as part of the food bank and pick up food. People want to get in. They want to pick up their food, the assistance that they need, and maybe get in and get out. To try and prolong that is not something I’m in favor of. I want to bring the dignity back that they have a choice.
That is a great perspective. It’s very helpful for understanding the change you’re trying to make at the food bank. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank is viewed as one of the big six. This move towards markets, is that happening across the province? Is that a trend for food banks across Canada?
The other interesting thing that I’ve learned in the food bank world is everybody seems to be a little bit different in how they offer food assistance. We’re one of the rare food banks that we do both. We do the food distribution through our hubs. We support the agencies. Some other food banks, they only support agencies. They don’t do that food distribution. They’re more supporting the social services and the agencies. It is interesting that there doesn’t seem to be one solution apart from the fact that people need food and they need that assistance but how they actually get that food varies dramatically across the country.
One of the things that come with taking on these leadership roles in the social profit sector is leading a team. You have a fairly significant sized team at the food bank and lots of volunteers to manage as well. How is leading culinary teams earlier in your career prepared you for the leadership challenge that you’re facing in the social sector?
To be honest, it goes back to my career. Leadership is leadership. I remember a certain point in my career, I was asked by a board of directors that was one of the jobs and executive search company I applied for asked me what I considered doing a psychiatric evaluation for lack of a better term. It sounds a little dramatic but it’s not. I met this gentleman, a psychologist and answered a lot of questions online. I never forget that he asked me. I put down one of my strengths was building high performing teams and successful teams. Whether it was in a kitchen or running a big kitchen or whether it was the captain of the Irish culinary team that won a gold medal in London many years ago.What you permit, you promote. Click To Tweet
He asked me, “You put down here as one of your strengths, you build great teams, how do you do that?” I looked at him and I said, “Larry, I have absolutely no idea. That’s probably the worst answer I could give you sitting here and I probably won’t get this job but I have no idea.” He looked at me and he said, “No, that’s an excellent answer.” That’s what you do and you don’t know how you do it. It’s a gift. That was probably one of the most profound moments for me ever and it’ll stay with me as long as I’m on Earth. I have this ability. I hope I never lose it because you’re always like, “Do I know what I’m doing?”
It’s about attracting good people. It’s about putting people in the right place. All of a sudden, endless books out there about leadership, but it’s that simple. It’s about holding people accountable. It’s about setting expectations. The other expression that I get teased about a lot that I use with my team is what you permit, you promote. Use that anywhere you want. Use that in your private life. Use that with your kids. Use that in your professional career and leading a team but if you’re going to permit bad behavior then you’re actually promoting it. Don’t put up with it, make the change and change is difficult, but it’s essential for companies and organizations to grow. Leadership skills, I’ve done it. I ran big kitchens. I ran the Terminal City Club. I’m certainly part of the executive leadership team of a massive security company with 1,600 employees. It’s transferable leadership skills, being authentic and be real.
Are you having different conversations or how is it different now that you’re leading in the social profit sector? Is your team looking for different answers or different guidance? How have you found that adjustment?
I find it fascinating you’re in the nonprofit world. It’s different. You have a business background. I have the same answer for everybody. No, this is a business. It is no different than running a private club. As the CEO of the Terminal City Club, you have monthly members or members paying dues on a monthly basis. Your fiduciary responsibility is to make sure that membership money goes as far as possible to help support the club and run the club. The Terminal City Club is a non-for-profit as well.
When I come to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, I look upon the donor money exactly the same way as I look upon membership money. I have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that every dollar that gets donated to this organization, we maximize the use of those dollars whether it’s in purchasing power or whatever we’re doing. If we’re going to put on a program or we’re going to put on some event, I want to try and make sure that even in a charity, the ROI has got to be there. There’s got to be some return. We can’t take people’s money and not make the best use of it that we possibly can. I got to answer to a board of directors. It’s no different than Terminal City Club. I answered to the Board of Directors there. I answer to the Board of Directors at the food bank.
I want to talk about one of the most important teams any CEO has and that’s the team around that board table. You’ve got a six-person board that meets monthly. It appears to be a very tight-knit group and seems focused. How do you keep them focused on what matters most?
You need to keep them engaged. As with any board, you need to make sure that they’re reading the material you’re sending them. I have a fairly new board and we did have six. Our bylaws say we have to have seven. We now have seven people. There are two more people joining the board. I did a day orientation for the board. We did a food sort in the warehouse so they could see what was going on and what happens when we’re going through the different donated food that comes in. They had lunch with the staff. We got everybody together and had a great lunch. It’s free to have a conversation with the team and they can understand and ask questions over lunch without anybody that’s on the team.
I did a series of presentations. I didn’t do it. My team did it. We did a presentation. Gina, who runs our food hub distribution model did a presentation on the hubs and how they work. Craig, who’s my Director of Operations gave them a tour through the warehouse and talked about the relationships with the farmers and how we try and get the best possible food donations we can get. My Director of Communications, Caroline, did a presentation about some of the things that we hope to be doing with getting the story out there and telling the story out there for this new food bank. We had a board meeting. I’m extremely grateful that they took the time to come, but they sit on the board for a reason.
These people care. They probably had more success than other people. They want to give back. They donate their time. We don’t pay anybody to be on the board and it is a huge commitment. I have a phone call with the board chair every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30. It could be a ten-minute call, it could be a 30-minute call. It’s just what’s going on, what’s happening and it’s keeping that information going back to them about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do.
Were you surprised at how the board reacted to being in the organization?
They were amazed at how complex the operation is. It’s not difficult at the 30,000-foot level. When you get into the details of what the operation, how we run things and trying to do the inventory of the food, making sure that when we do get a donation of food, we might get something coming in that it has an expiration date or a better before the date of maybe ten days away. How do we get that volume of food out to people that need it before that date? It’s a simple concept, but there’s some complexity behind it. Their reaction was fantastic. I had a lovely email after we did the orientation session with the board from the chair to say how incredible it was and how much they learned in that one day.
One of the things we see a lot here at the Discovery Group is challenges of alignment and engagement with boards often stem from the fact that the board that hasn’t had that immersive experience, doesn’t have that full understanding of the core business of the organization and aren’t able to give their best advice or their best business selves to the questions or to the issues facing the organization. Good on you for getting them down into the workings of the place to see how complex it is.
Essentially, they have to know what we do. They have to know how it works. One of the other biggest lessons I learned was I remember conversations with other general managers or CEOs of private clubs, don’t let the board talk to the staff. I’m like, “That’s crazy. Why would you not let the Board of Directors talk to the staff?” If I was a board member and I was told you can’t talk to the staff, I’d think, “What are you hiding?” That just comes back to leadership and being real. Ask me questions. I love working with the board. It’s a resource. You bounce ideas off people that are far smarter than I am. I love having debates about what’s the best course of action to do? I have an open-door policy. If I see a board member walking through the warehouse talking to some of the forklift truck drivers and other people that work there, I’m like, “They need to understand.”
Board members want to have that understanding of how organizations work. It’s often a failure of those of us in the sector to not give them that experience or give them the opportunities to understand because as you say, they care. They want to make a difference. They’re there for a reason and that immersive authentic experience adds a lot to their involvement as a board member.
It’s different for me being in the food bank and not with the board because all of the people on the board are external business people. One of the biggest challenges for private clubs is the board comes from the membership. When you’re working with a board at a private club, take your membership hat off and put your director hat on coming into a board meeting because otherwise, it has a tendency to be self-serving. My experience here at the food bank with the board of directors, they want to help. They genuinely want what’s best for everybody, which is excellent.
I assume a lot of that same commitment to the same passion is true in a lot of your donors that are regular to the organization. As you’re making the transition from providing emergency food to as you said, building strong, connected communities, are you having different conversations with your donors?
The answer would be yes. What’s important is to close the loop. When we get a large organization whether it’s a Loblaws or Sobeys or a Walmart or some of these larger organizations, what’s vitally important is to let them know the difference that they’ve made with some of their food donations. I gave some feedback to Loblaws, who are incredibly generous. We pick up some amazing product from their distribution warehouse in South Surrey on Mondays. Probably somewhere in the region of 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of food a week. The quality of the deli meats, the cheese, the fresh fruit and vegetables that we get, the yogurt things like that, this is excellent first quality product that we get cheese on a regular basis and people make fun of me around here because I will walk around the offices here at the food bank and I’ll say, “Look at this block of cheese.” The best before date is August 2019. We’ve literally got months to be able to distribute this to people that need it.
I’ll give you an example, there’s an afterschool program here for one of the schools that we help with the food support. When you go into this and we’ve changed in the last several months the quality of what we’re giving because we got a grant from Food Banks BC for this large cooler that we bought. It’s 23,000 cubic feet, the thing is massive. We could take a lot more perishable, a lot more food that we couldn’t take in donations before. This is a change in what we’re distributing. I went into this afterschool classroom and there were 20 or 30 kids in this from 3:00 to 6:00.
The lady who runs it turned to me and she says, “Look what you’ve done.” “What do you mean? What have I done?” She says, “We were always grateful for the food support, but we usually get a lot of snacks, sugary items and things like that. These kids were all acting out and they weren’t studying and everything else. Now what you’ve done with deli meats and the cheese, they’re getting better nutrition, look at them. The room is quiet. They’re studying. They’re getting better grades in their classes.” I’m like, “I’ve got to tell the Loblaws about this,” because that’s what we’re doing. We’re changing these young people’s lives through food. They’re not hyped up on sugar as much. They’re getting better nutrition. They’re studying better. They’re getting better grades. You couldn’t ask for a better job than to be part of what I’m doing.
That is a great story to share not just with your donors but with our audience and probably anybody. That’s inspiring. I want to go over three things that you’ve said that are meaningful for social profit leaders or social profit leaders to be. You talked about people don’t know how to help, but they want to. Leaders must simplify how donors can contribute to our organizations. That’s a clear guiding principle for anyone either in the fundraising line of work or in that CEO chair. The other one’s head is if you’re changing the story of your organization it’s not enough to tell people you have to show them. Whether it’s walking around with the block of cheese with an extended best before date or connecting your board to the workings of the organization, it seems like you’re doing that very well. Your staff may be tired of hearing it, but I thought it was great and worth repeating is, “What you permit, you promote.” That is a good discipline for leaders in any sector but particularly in the social profit sector.
I’m very fortunate. I’m very grateful to be in the position I’m in. I’m very grateful and thankful for the career I’ve had. I had breakfast with one of the founding partners from Pinton Forrest & Madden, who actually placed me in this position. George said to me, “I love your career. It’s so cool.” I said, “I’m very grateful.” There are times where I felt like I must be mad. I must be crazy. Everything I’ve done has led me to this point. Steve Jobs said again, “If you can follow your heart and do something that you’re passionate about, you can’t connect those dots looking forward but looking back it makes sense.”
That’s probably the best lesson of all that you’ve given us. I want to thank you very much for being a part of the Discovery Pod.
Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
About David Long
David has worked internationally in Switzerland, Great Britain and Australia before settling in Canada in 1996. A classically trained Chef, David was the Captain of the Irish Culinary Team that won Gold at the Hotelympia competition in London, England. David has successfully led many teams and made a bold career change from the kitchen to the CEO office in 2005. From 2005 to 2010 David led one of Canada’s most prestigious private member’s clubs, the Terminal City Club, through a $6 million renovation, on time and under budget in preparation for the spectacular 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
David has held senior positions across a variety of disciplines including Executive Chef, Chief Executive Officer, General Manager and a Vice President Operations before accepting the role as Chief Operating Officer, quickly being promoted to Chief Executive Officer for the GVFB. Always a passionate, engaging leader he builds high performing teams and has a proven track record of bringing fun and inspiration to any organization.