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Ford helped start Food Bank of Iowa, never left


For years, Karen Ford lived out of suitcases and boxes. Her husband’s job as a store manager required that her young family frequently move from one Iowa community to another. But despite a frenzied lifestyle, she continued to volunteer in politics, specifically in public policy areas. Hours of volunteering paved the way for her to work for a non-profit organization and be one of the catalysts behind the creation of the Food Bank of Iowa, where she has been executive director for almost 22 years.

What jobs did you have leading up to your career with the Food Bank?

When I was a stay-at-home mom, I did a lot of political volunteer work in the area of public policy. Greater involvement and networking in the public arena led up to a job with a regional planning commission in Ottumwa. When we moved to Newton, I got a job with the Community Action Agency in Des Moines. I didn’t know from all these comings and goings that I would ultimately end up with the Food Bank of Iowa.

Did you have any mentors early on who influenced you?

When I worked for the Community Action Agency, there was a chief civil rights legal opportunities person I worked with. We were going back and forth on something, and one day he yelled at me and said, “I don’t ever want to hear you whine.” I’ve never lost that. It was good advice.

What did you take away from that?

That more can be accomplished through reason.

When you started working in Des Moines, what did the city have for food assistance?

At that point (1980), the soup kitchen had just gotten going in Des Moines. They quickly sensed that getting food was a very expensive proposition, and so a few of us got together to have a meeting. I had a friend in Omaha who was integral in the founding of the food bank there. He sent me copies of what he worked on, and I walked into that meeting the resident expert on food banks. It was decided that we needed to explore the possibility of a food bank here.

How did the Food Bank of Iowa start?

It started in a very small warehouse with a secondhand freezer that had been patched together. It was really just to get things going. We went through a hiring process, which was something that was important for me, because I didn’t want somebody to come back and say, “You did this just so you could have a job.” But lo and behold, I got the job.

Did you have to work fast to get it ready?

We spent the summer of 1982 getting everything ready and had our grand opening that September. We signed up about 40 agencies, and we were putting off distributing until just the right second. I remember we got 200 or 300 cases of cottage cheese in at once, and I knew there was no more waiting. We had to start getting the food out.

How much food goes through here now in the course of a year?

We distributed close to 4 million pounds in recent years. The flood year in 1993 was our biggest year, when it was over 5 million pounds.

Have you met other interesting people through your job?

Yes, ranging from Rex Burns, a retired division president of SuperValu who taught me a lot about dedication, to Bruce Springsteen, who actually kissed me on the cheek once. He had taken on Second Harvest as his cause during that tour.

What motivates you?

I like that there’s a lot of variety with this job, with new projects and initiatives all the time. And for the past year and a half, the deputy director here has been handling the warehouse organization side, which has freed me up to do the types of things I really enjoy doing, such as project development, strategic planning with the board of directors, grant writing and public policy. Now, having the time and the staff to do some of the things that we’ve been talking about for years is really enjoyable.

What are your biggest challenges?

Raising enough public awareness to make people understand that hunger is a real problem, is always an issue. Also, big stores have gone to just-in-time inventory, where they are not overproducing the amount of goods that they used to. It’s efficient and it’s very good for consumers, but food banks have noticed a drastic change in terms of donations.

What is your goal for the Food Bank?

There is a big debate on the ability to end hunger and whether that’s a possibility or not. I think it’s becoming more and more likely that it is possible. My vision would be to bring all the forces together that deal with the issue of people needing access to food. That would allow us to serve a more targeted group of people who need our help.

What has been the biggest honor you’ve received in your work?

I was awarded the Dick Goebel award for public service from the Food Research and Action Center at the National Food Policy Conference, and it took me by total surprise.

Was that a sign to you that you were making a difference?

Yes. To me, it doesn’t seem like I even do that much, but to have people I really respect say, “Yeah, you do,” was really gratifying.

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