Arnold leaving food bank in strong condition

December 12, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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When John Arnold took over the nonprofit Feeding America West Michigan food bank almost 22 years ago (then known as Second Harvest Gleaners), he was following his heart — but he ran it like an expert business executive. When he retires at the end of December due to serious illness, he will leave one of the most innovative and highly acclaimed of the 203 food banks throughout the United States.

Every pound of the more than 25 million pounds of food distributed each year by FAWM, located at 864 West River Center Drive in Comstock Park, is donated, but Arnold said that getting companies to make those donations has always been the easiest part of his job.

It helps to be in West Michigan, a productive region that Arnold describes as “extremely food-rich.”

In the early 1980s, Arnold was working for a legal aid agency in Illinois when he decided to start the Central Illinois Food Bank. However, much of the agriculture there is devoted to grain for feeding cattle, hogs and chickens, and food bank experts warned Arnold he might have a problem.

He had a simple approach for getting donations from the human food producers: “Always try to leave the donor looking forward to their next opportunity to have dealings with you. Make the experience so positive that you become their first choice” when they have food to donate.

By 1983, he said, the Central Illinois Food Bank was the fastest growing in the national network of food banks — “in an area where everyone knows there isn’t any food,” joked Arnold.

His success came to the attention of the national organization of food banks, Feeding America, and he was hired to get a failing food bank in the St. Louis region working well again. Then he took a job at Feeding America as inspector of food banks around the country. In 1989, he learned that the food bank in Grand Rapids needed a new director, and since he and his wife, Jeanne Thomas, are from here, he took the job.

Back in food-rich West Michigan, Arnold resumed use of his diplomatic skills that had worked in Illinois to get donations, and said he “overshot the mark to the point that, in the early 1990s, we were having to refuse as many as six to eight million pounds of food per month.”

Companies that donate their unsold food to charity can deduct its cost of production, but in 1970, a lot of unsold food was still going to landfills and there were hungry poor in America, so Congress enacted legislation allowing an additional deduction of half of the normal markup value if the food was donated to a food bank in the national network. That made donations more attractive to producers and also made it easier for the IRS to monitor and approve the tax deductions.

Arnold said studies have been done in America indicating that perhaps as much as 300 million pounds of food are wasted each year, while the amount required to feed all the hungry poor is “probably in a range of 12 to 14 billion pounds.” Much of the wasted food is perfectly edible, enough so “that I and others have always maintained that it’s not a matter of ‘is there enough?’ It’s strictly a matter of logistics: How do you get the food from where it is to those who need it?”

Reasons that prompt processors to donate food rather than try to sell it range from packaging errors to simple over-production. For example, FAWM recently received corn chips in bags that had the printing on the inside, and Gerber donated “dozens of truckloads” of baby food in glass jars when it switched to plastic containers.

Perishable foods such as produce and baked goods are among the easiest to procure, but passing them along quickly to the needy is a challenge. Arnold came up with the idea to use donated beverage trucks, which are refrigerated, as mobile pantries. The idea spread to hundreds of other food banks.

FAWM, with 60 employees and a total of 21 trucks of all types, now has nine warehouses located strategically throughout its service area, which is almost half of all Michigan counties — those on the western side of the Lower Peninsula and all of the Upper Peninsula.

Arnold’s most persistent campaign over the years has been trying to educate the public on the economics of food donations. Many organizations collect individual cans of food for the poor, but a food bank is a far more efficient and effective source of food. But food banks do have logistics expenses to deal with: warehouses, utilities, trucks and employees.

Arnold argues that if people made cash donations to food banks equal to just half of the retail value of the canned goods collected, everyone would benefit more, including the donors. He notes that cash donations to food banks in Michigan qualify for a 50 percent state tax credit, plus a potential federal income tax deduction.

The 1,300-plus food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, rescue missions and other charity agencies across Michigan that obtain food from FAWM pay only a handling fee of 6 to 16 cents per pound, depending on the product.

Two events in Arnold’s life may have led to his career in food banks. As a Boy Scout from Grand Rapids, his troop took a bus to a jamboree on the East Coast, passing through New York City. At a stoplight, Arnold saw an elderly woman picking food scraps out of a trash can.

“I can honestly say I’ve never been the same person since. It shook me to the depths of my soul,” he said.

A few years later, after high school and facing the draft, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Soon, he was serving as a radioman in Viet Nam. On a night patrol, Arnold’s unit was mistakenly shelled by American artillery. Suddenly, he heard a shell coming directly toward him.

“I only had time to think, ‘So this is how it ends,’” he said. The shell hit about three feet from him, showering him in mud — and failed to explode.

After completing his service in 1970, he said, he “went into a real deep funk and was pretty much a hermit. I didn’t deal with people — I didn’t do anything for about two years, and in fact, I had decided I needed to leave the United States altogether.” He figures it was post-traumatic stress and despair at all the pointless death he had witnessed in Viet Nam.

Another ex-GI persuaded him to visit the new Grand Valley State College. A chance encounter with a friendly dog in Lake Superior Hall led Arnold — a dog lover — to apply for admission. It was there, as a student, that he soon met his wife-to-be.

Surviving that near-miss in Viet Nam at age 19 was a gift, he said. “How could I not spend my life trying to do as much good as I could?”

“I really needed something like this,” said Arnold, 60, referring to the challenging years he has spent working with food banks.

The prostate cancer he has fought for almost five years is getting the upper hand, and the treatments leave him too exhausted to do his job effectively, he said.

“This organization needs to stay focused, so it really is time for me to get out of the way,” he said. “I don’t want to be a drama queen that distracts the organization.”

Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, said Arnold has been “an innovative leader in the food banking industry” for 25 years. Last year, he received Feeding America’s top annual award presented in honor of a person’s accomplishments.

She noted that when he took charge of Second Harvest Gleaners, “he was overseeing 275 agencies and distributing 3 million pounds of food. Today, the food bank is distributing a remarkable 25 million pounds to 1,300 agencies.”

“He has truly humanized the food-banking industry by applying common sense solutions to challenges, ensuring the opportunity for clients to make personal choices in food selection, developing a model of branch warehouses so that people do not have travel more than 10 miles to get food, and converting trucks to create mobile food pantries,” added Escarra.

“There are many words to describe John, including tenacious, diligent, determined and visionary, but what is most outstanding is his sensitivity to his fellow human beings. He respects and honors the dignity of everyone he meets and serves. We are grateful for his dedication and service.”

Teresa Pawl-Knapp, assistant director of FAWM since 1990, will serve as interim executive director beginning Jan. 1.

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