Jason Luke Clark’s route to CEO of a $50 million organization began with a $5,000 investment – in him.
“My junior year in college, I needed money,” explained the head of Second Harvest Inland Northwest. “So I applied for what was called a service scholarship. Recipients were required to volunteer 15 hours a week.
“Originally I was going to work at a health clinic, but that fell through at the last minute. One of my professors was on the board of the local food bank, and suggested I talk to someone there.”
What started out as a volunteer position became a job, and then a career.
“After graduation, I continued working at the food bank, and found it very energizing,” Clark said.
Eventually, Clark got involved with regional and national food bank networks, serving six years on Feeding America’s national board.
He joined Second Harvest Inland Northwest as president and CEO in 2002. He discussed the nonprofit’s evolving mission and challenges during a recent interview.
S-R: What is Feeding America?
Clark: It’s a national organization with about 200 members, 30 or so which have Second Harvest as part of their name. Others include Food Lifeline in Seattle and Oregon Food Bank. It’s a bottom-up network – the national organization works for us. The benefit is that we have local control. The flip side is that we don’t have common branding. Every member decides what they want to call themselves.
S-R: How does Second Harvest Inland Northwest’s size compare with other members’?
Clark: Members are classified as large, medium and small, and we’re in the large category. During the most recent fiscal year, our total revenues were just over $51 million (primarily donated food). So even though we’re not based in a large city, we’re still a pretty big organization.
S-R: How is the food distributed locally?
Clark: Mostly through 250 neighborhood food banks and meal centers. We also have a mobile food bank and other direct-aid programs. Before the recession, we were feeding roughly 46,000 people a week. Now we’re feeding a lot more.
S-R: What type of food do you provide?
Clark: Almost 50 percent of our volume is fresh produce. We’ll distribute well over 2 million pounds of apples this year, as well as potatoes, onions, carrots.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Clark: In St. Joseph, Missouri (pronounced Mizz-er-uh), where Jesse James was shot and the Pony Express failed. A good place to be from, as my grandma used to say.
S-R: Did you do any volunteering as a youngster?
Clark: No, my first volunteer experience was at the local food bank when I was attending Missouri Western State University. My goal had been to get a Ph.D. in history, but I switched to business, eventually earned an MBA and have been doing this for more than 20 years.
S-R: What’s the difference between Second Harvest and a food bank?
Clark: We’re primarily a distribution center, moving donated food throughout the region. Neighborhood food banks are typically based in churches or community organizations, and are directly involved in handing out food.
S-R: Donated food accounts for almost 90 percent of your revenue. Where does it come from?
Clark: Mostly the food industry – from individual farmers to shippers, packers, wholesalers and retailers. Our expertise is finding excess, unmarketable food in the food industry.
S-R: What makes it unmarketable?
Clark: Usually it’s a QA (quality assurance) issue: blemished fruit; not enough shelf life; manufacturing defects – things that affect marketability but not usability.
S-R: Last weekend, Boy Scouts went door to door collecting food for Second Harvest. On Thanksgiving morning, the annual Turkey Trot fun run in Manito Park will generate thousands of pounds of nonperishable food donations. How important are events like these in your overall effort?
Clark: They account for some of the most highly prized inventory that neighborhood food banks receive, but they only represent 2 or 3 percent of our overall volume. Still, for some people, that’s the transaction they want to be involved in.
S-R: Which items are most appreciated?
Clark: Shelf-stable items that are easy to prepare. It’s hard to go wrong with peanut butter and jelly or mac and cheese.
S-R: Is demand cyclical?
Clark: Until five years ago I would have said yes. Anytime there was a minor recession, we’d see an uptick in demand. Since then, we’ve seen a surge in demand, and it has stayed high. That’s likely to grow because of the (roughly 5 percent) cut in food stamps earlier this month.
S-R: There’s ample documentation that America has a hunger problem. Yet photos taken at food banks often show recipients who are severely overweight.
Clark: There’s a connection between hunger and obesity. Often the calories that are most affordable are not the ones you should overindulge in.
S-R: Is that an issue when you think about what food to accept and distribute?
Clark: It certainly has inspired us to focus on fresh produce.
S-R: Freshness implies perishable. How much waste is there at your end?
Clark: We can’t be a landfill, and 99.9 percent of our donors respect that. This past year, we had less than 1 percent waste.
S-R: Can producers and retailers write off the food they give you?
Clark: The tax code isn’t very generous regarding this type of contribution.
S-R: Do food banks pay for the food they receive from you?
Clark: Food donated to us goes out to neighborhood agencies at no cost. If we can buy a truckload of items at a substantial savings, we make that available to food banks at our case price, and we cover the carrying costs.
S-R: How has the collection and distribution of food evolved in recent years?
Clark: It’s become more high velocity. Seventy percent of our inventory requires temperature control of some kind, so our entire fleet is refrigerated now. That’s also made storage and distribution more expensive.
S-R: Is Second Harvest a stable business?
Clark: Our greatest financial struggles occur during the best economic times, because the message that there are hungry people doesn’t resonate as much. In recent years, the community has recognized the need is there.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Clark: I like our mission, and working with good people, from our board of directors and staff to our volunteers and the families we serve.
S-R: Who are your volunteers?
Clark: Everyone from elementary school students and their families to a wonderful guy named Bruce who’s in his 80s.
S-R: How much contact do you have with recipient families?
Clark: The mobile food bank program, which we started six years ago, is our most visceral connection with the families we serve. Our truck goes out into the region more than 150 times a year, serving hard-to-reach spots. It’s actually a very cool truck – a converted beer truck that has roll-up side doors and RV canopies that come out, creating an instant distribution point.
S-R: How has Second Harvest changed since you took over?
Clark: We live in one of the most productive growing regions in the country. My goal over the last 10 years has been to tap into that food supply and get it to where it’s needed, an effort that has required us to expand our facilities and increase our fundraising capacity.
S-R: What’s the biggest challenge Second Harvest faces today?
Clark: Sustaining a high level of output. We used to serve people during short-term economic crises, and now we’ve become a lifeline for people who have to come back again and again.
S-R: Are there any changes on the horizon for Second Harvest?
Clark: One idea is to add a production kitchen in our warehouse, so we can educate people about nutrition. For instance, growers are sending us more lentils, which is an incredibly versatile protein. But a lot of families are unsure what to do with lentils. If we had a kitchen, we could produce sample meals, quick-freeze them and send them out with the mobile food bank, so a family would get a recipe, a sample meal and a bag of lentils all at the same time. We want to get better at facilitating a conversation about health and wellness.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who aspires to work in the nonprofit sector?
Clark: The range of nonprofits is pretty broad, so it’s a good idea to volunteer with a variety of organizations and find the best fit.
S-R: Anything else?
Clark: This sort of work can be incredibly rewarding, but the most successful people in our world are the ones who aren’t just here for the paycheck.