We sat down with Leslie Bacho, new CEO at Second Harvest Food Bank, to learn more about her background, leadership style and thoughts about food-banking. She brings a wealth of food-banking experience and a proven track record of success creating innovative solutions to reach more people with nutritious food. She served as chief operating officer at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank for 19 years, where she led efforts to more than quadruple the amount of food provided to the community. For more details, check out her bio.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background:
As long as I can remember I have had a deep sense of commitment, combined with an obligation to give back to my community. At the same time, I’ve always been driven to run things. I think I learned the first from my mother, who was a social worker, and the latter from my father, who ran a small business. I earned my bachelor’s at Duke and an MBA at Northwestern. Later, I had a lot of success in consumer marketing as a brand manager at Clorox. But my heart was always in the nonprofit sector.
I have worked for several nonprofits, but found working for a food bank to be a perfect fit.
It combines the ability to have an incredible impact in the community with the unique challenge of getting more food out to people in need. I’ve dedicated the last 19 years to finding ways to end hunger in San Francisco and Marin. Now I’m looking forward to bringing my skills to Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Q: What has inspired you most in your food-banking career?
What I find so inspiring is when I meet someone who is a volunteer and who used to be a client; whose life really turned around thanks to the food bank. Now they are volunteering at a pantry. There’s such a strong sense of community. The food bank gives people who are struggling the opportunity to get back on their feet. When I visit a distribution site, I don’t get the sense of people feeling down and out. Instead, I get a sense of people making great connections, with so much positive energy around sharing fresh, nutritious food. It feels very upbeat and there is a strong sense of hope.
Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the hunger landscape in the last 19 years?
Something that has been really dramatic is the increase in fresh, nutritious produce. In California, we have been leaders in changing the product mix to include healthier foods. There has been a real mind shift in terms of not just providing calories, but also providing nutritious food. Also, the focus on nutrition education – helping clients prepare simple recipes with the wonderful fresh produce we provide.
From a hunger perspective, the growing income inequality has also created dramatic changes, at the food bank I was at and here at Second Harvest. When the recession hit, we were suddenly serving folks who never needed help before. Since that time, although the economy has gotten better for many, putting food on the table remains challenging for the people we serve. We are continuing to see more need in the community as the cost of living skyrockets.
Q: Why is food-banking so important to you?
What I love about food-banking is that it touches so many people. We not only touch people through our programs, we also partner with hundreds of agencies and thousands of volunteers and donors. In a world with a lot of bad news, it offers the chance to work together to do something really good. Food-banking has the power to bring people together to have a tremendous impact on a critical problem.
I believe that food insecurity is a problem we can and must solve. Food is such a fundamental building block for all of us to learn, grow and age in place, and really be able to thrive. The challenge is that the need is so great and you always have to be thinking about how we can have the biggest impact with our limited resources. You have to be disciplined around that. At the same time, you have to allow space for innovation and the ability to pilot new programs – the next big thing that will help us expand services.
The power of food-banking is our ability to scale and to have influence in the community. We can have an immensely positive impact around addressing hunger. But we have to be smart about it. We always need to think about where we can play a role to have the biggest impact given our resources, connections in the community and access to healthy food.
Q: Could you talk about your biggest food-banking accomplishment?
Leading our programs and operations to significantly expand the San Francisco-Marin’s pantry network is one of my biggest accomplishments. The pantry network now serves 30,000 households every single week through 250 farmers’ market-style food distributions. This is having a tremendous impact and I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish. We recognized early on that poverty existed throughout the community, even in neighborhoods where you wouldn’t expect to find it. We went neighborhood by neighborhood to determine the need and see how we could meet it. We worked with churches, schools, community centers and other groups that would partner with us, and we developed a robust network committed to ending hunger. I’m also proud of my work with the Marin merger. We were able to go into that county and triple the amount of food provided to the community.
Q: What principles and values guide you?
I believe we all have a responsibility to help one another out, to use the talents and resources we have to make our communities stronger. I believe in treating one another with respect and dignity and that our services should reflect this. I also value excellent customer service, with our clients, our partners and our donors. And I have a strong sense of stewardship. We always need to be mindful of our responsibility to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. I’m also very devoted to family and have a strong commitment to balance. It’s important to work hard, but we also have to make time for our lives outside of work.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about your personal background— family, interests and hobbies?
I’m married with two kids – a 13-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. We all love the outdoors. In our free time, we like to hike, backpack and camp. I’m also an avid reader. My husband and I used to be big rock climbers. Now most weekends are spent at our kids’ sporting events or theater performances. I’m really committed to family. We recently expanded our family locally by moving my mother out here.
Q: What would you say is your leadership style?
My leadership style is to set a clear vision and goals, and then make sure people have the resources and support they need to meet those goals and do their best work. I want people to feel empowered to make the decisions they need to make. I think it’s important to ensure that everyone understands how their role connects to our vision and goals. It’s also really essential that we have good communication in ways that enable people to stay up to speed on what is happening around the organization. In terms of personal style, I’m a very candid person and I like to laugh a lot. We all have hard jobs that we are passionate about, so it’s important to take time to laugh together.
Q: What are the most important challenges and opportunities today?
One of the biggest challenges is the skyrocketing cost of living in Silicon Valley. We will continue to see an increase in the need for services because families simply can’t afford to put food on the table. We’re also finding that the people who need our services are becoming harder to reach. There is also fear in the community, particularly among the immigrant populations we serve. In addition, some of the federally funded nutrition programs many local families depend on could face budget cuts. All of this creates challenges, but also provides the opportunity to raise awareness around the critical issue of hunger in our community and generate more support.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish at Second Harvest?
First I will do a lot of listening and learning so I can understand the current challenges and successes – what everyone feels is going well and what we need to work on. Second Harvest is guided by an ambitious strategic plan, so I will be looking at ways to accomplish our goal of serving more people over the next few years. We know we aren’t serving everyone who needs our help, so from a marketing perspective, we also have to figure out how to ensure that our messages are resonating with the people we need to reach. I hope to work with the team to build on all the success the organization’s had and to take it to the next level.
I also want to focus on advocacy. Hunger isn’t a problem that can be solved just by delivering more food. We have to strengthen safety-net programs like CalFresh (food stamps). Food banks have so much credibility in our local communities and can be strong voices for change. We need to look at advocacy as a way to bring more resources that can have the biggest impact on improving the lives of the people we serve.