Banking on Generosity
As the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank confronts never-waning need, shrinking funds and widespread shifts in the way food is produced and distributed, Lisa Scales meets those challenges.
Photos by Renee Rosensteel
It is a Sunday afternoon in early March in Oakland, and though it is warm inside Rodef Shalom Congregation’s large, table-lined community room, there’s a storm outside.
It is the day of one of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s larger annual fundraisers, Empty Bowls, but the blizzard is hampering attendance — and contributions. Nothing can be done about that, but there is something Lisa Scales — the food bank’s CEO for almost two years and an 18-year veteran with the organization — can do for those who show up.
For everyone from the local politicians and celebrities who volunteer to serve Empty Bowls’ inventive soups, to residents who recognize her from her appearance in recent Giant Eagle commercials, Scales — dressed in a dark-blue fleece top with a food-bank logo — is ready with a smile and a welcome. “Thank you for coming, Mayor,” she says, greeting Pittsburgh’s newly minted chief executive Bill Peduto as he bounds into the room for his serving shift.
Despite the festive atmosphere for everyone else, such fundraising events are work for Scales — and increasingly important work at that. Though many people still associate the food bank with food drives — plopping canned goods into bins at church or school — getting the really big players such as grocery stores and food manufacturers to donate food has become increasingly more difficult through the years Scales, 54, has worked for the organization. Raising money to buy more food has become a paramount mission.
Complicating that task are global and national changes in the way food is distributed — as in just-in-time warehousing, for example — consumed and purchased. People now eat fewer canned vegetables and boxed meals in favor of fresh produce and homemade food. Discount stores now buy overstock the food bank once received. The result: less nonperishable food donated by the Shop ’n Saves, Giant Eagles and Walmarts of the world.
On top of that, demand for the food bank’s help has never waned during its 34-year history.
The food bank is an umbrella organization that oversees distribution of food to more than 400 partners in an 11-county area in southwestern Pennsylvania. It has grown from an entity that in all of 1981 served a couple of thousand people by distributing 1 million pounds of food to serving 110,000 people each month — nearly half of them children and senior citizens — with a projected 27 million pounds of food in 2014.
As demand has grown, its geography has transformed from primarily urban to increasingly suburban and more rural. Need has shifted in the region from a split of 75 percent urban, 25 percent suburban/rural a decade ago to a 65-35 percentage split today. That has created distribution and expense challenges for the food bank and its partners that include other county-based food banks, as well as neighborhood-level pantries and kitchens to which the food bank provides food to distribute.
If all of that weren’t enough, the food bank has endured a series of cuts in funding from both the state and federal governments during the last decade, dropping from a combined $3 million in funding in 2010 to $2.4 million last year. In short, all of the critical arrows are going in the wrong direction.
No one knows that more than Scales, who — despite a delay in ascending to become the food bank’s fifth CEO — now appears to food bank board members and other knowledgeable observers to be the perfect person for dealing with the near-constant storm her organization faces. Like one of her mentors, Joyce Rothermel, a Pittsburgh icon who was the food bank’s co-founder and longtime CEO before retiring in 2011, Scales is quick with a smile and positive energy. But she’s no Pollyanna.
“When I started here, we had overflowing shelves” of canned goods and boxed food, she says during a break from being the face of the food bank at Empty Bowls.
“Those days are gone. But this is critical. A hungry child is not going to be able to learn and certainly won’t be able to enter the workplace. Do I think there’s more that can be done? Yes.”
In 1980, the year the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank first opened its doors in a 2,000- square-foot warehouse in the Hill District, Scales was about to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Seton Hill University. Her self-created major in the social sciences focused on Latin American studies, but Scales admits she did not know what she would do with it — or her life.
Almost by default, she went to law school, as did her father, John Scales, and late grandfather, A.C. Scales. Her grandfather and father worked together at Scales & Murray, a civil and municipal law practice in Greensburg, where her father and mother, Joan, raised Scales, her two sisters and her late brother.
Through her experiences as a child watching her father and grandfather at work and helping clients, Scales says she acquired a sense “that you needed to treat everyone with respect,” no matter their circumstances.
“[I]t became obvious to me as she got older that she had such compassion and passion to help others,” says John Scales, who at age 81 still practices law.
In the five years after completing law school at Boston University in 1987, Scales put her law degree to work at a series of jobs — at a small firm that handled mostly real estate transactions and for the city of Chicago — before eventually working with her father and grandfather. Along the way, she says she realized “I respected the law, but I guess I felt it didn’t feed my soul. I realized there was something more in store for me in life. But working for a nonprofit wasn’t even on my radar.”
While at a party in 1991, Scales met a woman who worked at the food bank. In conversation, that woman “ . . . went on and on about her work and how much she enjoyed it,” says Scales. Not long after, Scales took a minimum-wage job in 1992 as a data collector on a childhood hunger study for Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh advocacy group that works to reduce hunger and poverty.
“It was a couple of years into my tenure at Just Harvest that I felt: This was my work. This is what I was going to do with my adult life,” says Scales, who is single and lives in Wilkinsburg, a community she chose for its diversity. She spent four years at Just Harvest before the food bank hired her in 1996 to run its Green Harvest program, overseeing several different agricultural initiatives.
“I was very impressed that she had a background as an attorney and had worked with women’s rights with Just Harvest,” says Rothermel, a former Catholic nun who had been the food bank’s CEO for nearly a decade when Scales was hired. “I had a lot of trust in her skills.”
As the food bank grew, moving in 1999 from a warehouse in McKeesport to its current location in Duquesne, Scales acquired more responsibilities and rose to become its chief operating officer. In that time — in no small part because of Scales’ decade-long tenure overseeing its operations — the food bank built a stellar reputation as an efficient, scandal-free operation that always managed to find ways to feed more people.
That reputation has continued under her leadership.
“I have nothing but good things to say about the food bank,” says Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, a longtime funder of the food bank. “It’s a terrifically run organization and great community asset.”
That’s the general consensus in the region’s foundation community and among the food bank’s corporate supporters. The reason is clear, says Morgan O’Brien, CEO of Peoples Natural Gas, which raises funds for the food bank by sponsoring its annual Santa House in Market Square as well as the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, another of the food bank’s fundraising events. “The food bank does an incredibly good job with the resources it has,” says O’Brien.
After Rothermel announced plans to retire in 2011, the food bank board commissioned a national search for her replacement. When Scales applied for the position, Rothermel says she wrote a letter of recommendation for her. Instead, the board chose Jermaine Husser, a rising star in the food-bank world who had been running a smaller operation in Charleston, S.C.
Until she was interviewed for this story, Rothermel, for one simple reason, had not disclosed publicly that she had recommended Scales then: She says she didn’t want to hurt or cause divisiveness within the food bank. “I wanted to respect the board’s decision,” Rothermel says. “And I never wanted my personal perspective to be used as a wedge against the food bank.”
Not getting the job then “was a tough time,” Scales acknowledges. “I didn’t know what to do. But my dad told me to just hang in there.”
Less than a year after he arrived in Pittsburgh, Husser announced his resignation in June 2012, saying his family missed the South. A month later the board named Scales to the CEO position.
Matt Swider, former president of AMCOM Office Systems and president of the food bank’s board when it named first Husser, and later Scales as CEO, did not want to elaborate on those choices or why the board didn’t choose Scales in its first opportunity. When asked if the board felt that, in the end, it got a second chance to make the right choice, Swider says, “That’s a fair assumption.
“We feel now that we have a sustainable leader who understands our market and our community,” he says.
It is not necessary to venture to a local food pantry or soup kitchen to understand the importance of the food bank. But it is instructive to witness its current-day challenges and a reminder that, as Scales says, “hunger is largely invisible to most people.”
The North Hills Food Bank, one of the region’s oldest volunteer pantries, obtains about 40 percent of its provisions from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Its main site, on the property of Hiland Presbyterian Church in Ross Township, resembles a neighborhood grocery store. Inside, its shelves are neatly stacked with cans, pastries and boxed food, and its freezers and refrigerators store produce, meat and frozen foods.
Because it is located in one of the region’s more affluent areas, its volunteers are accustomed to questions about whether people “really” are going without food in the region.
“People will see [others] coming here who have what looks like a brand-new car,” says Jim Stebler, 77, the pantry’s volunteer director, “and they’ll say, ‘Hey, they have a new car.’ Well, you don’t know — maybe they had to borrow that car just to get here. We assume people wouldn’t ask for help if they didn’t need it.”
Stacey Jordan, 39, of West View, was one of those who drove to the food bank recently. This past winter, her fiancé, a plumber who worked on new housing, was laid off. That didn’t present an immediate problem for them or Jordan’s 17-year-old son because she was working as a nurse’s aide.
Then in December she was stricken with a serious illness that required a three-month hospital stay. She wasn’t paid then, she says, because the illness wasn’t related to her work. “I do have a job,” says Jordan, who cries as she tells her story. “But I couldn’t work, and we’ve just been scraping by.
“It’s the first time I’ve been here [to the pantry,] and I’m overwhelmed by the food they gave me,” she says, pointing to six plastic bags of groceries she got as a first-time “emergency” recipient.
Asking for help was not easy, she says, particularly after work colleagues raised $1,000 that helped her family get by and hold on to their car and home before she was able to return to work. Coming to the food pantry was a last resort. “But, when you’ve got a kid, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” she says. “You can’t sit and wallow.”
Scales might say the same thing about the food bank.
As its challenges have piled up, so have Scales’ methods for overcoming them — some implemented more easily than others.
In August, to free up staff time to devote to other projects, Scales made the difficult choice to close 15 food pantries the food bank ran for some local communities. That arrangement was unusual; local volunteers or organizations run other pantries in the food bank’s 11-county network. The rationale for downsizing in some areas, Scales says, was “to more accurately fit the needs of the community” by redistributing resources and opening sites in underserved portions of the food bank’s 11-county service area.
Still, “that wasn’t an easy decision,” she says, “because we know how important access to food is.” The food bank also made arrangements for transportation for some of the closed pantries’ former clients to get to other options. “In no case did someone who had access to food previously lose their ability to obtain adequate food because of a closure,” she says.
Rothermel says she and Scales worked so well as a team because, during Scales’ decade as head of operations, “I trusted her to do everything inside” while Rothermel focused on “visioning” and looking into the future. “She knows the inside of the operation so well because she knows all the nitty-gritty,” Rothermel says.
That nitty-gritty knowledge enables Scales to understand how the food bank could help customers after closing those pantries as well as how the closings ultimately could help the food bank. One of the projects for which Scales has freed up staff is an anticipated increase in donations of fresh produce.
Scales says she believes vegetables and fruit could constitute 50 percent of all food-bank supplies within three years, up from 23 percent now. That would more than double the 6 million pounds of produce the food bank distributed in 2013.
It’s the kind of forward-looking idea for which Rothermel was known. But the logistics of how the food bank will target, transport, store and distribute that perishable produce — and ensure clients eat it by providing cooking and preparation advice — is all Scales.
While nonperishable food is easier to store and distribute, produce — rather than the canned and packaged staples of the past — “is the food that’s available,” she says. “It is also nutritious.”
In 2013, Scales sought assistance from Don Ziegler of GENCO, a supply-chain management consulting company that is helping the food bank become leaner and more efficient in its distribution system. “As soon as I realized there was going to be this shift, I wanted to get ahead of it,” she says.
That was the type of situation that Scales’ experience had trained her to address. But because Scales had spent so much time working inside the food bank, Rothermel says “some of the worry of the board” in not initially choosing Scales “may have been a concern that the spokesperson part of the job may not have been something that she was comfortable with.”
The board has not found that to be the case as Scales has taken on a more public role at the food bank’s helm, says board member Carol Robinson, president of the nonprofit consulting firm Robinson Management. “Lisa has moved from a more internally focused person to being more engaged in the community and [has] done it well,” she says.
And sometimes it pays to be lucky as well as hard-working.
Last fall, the federal food-stamp program was cut — by about $3 million each month for people who receive food stamps in the food bank’s 11-county region — which increased demand on food bank resources.
In stepped Giant Eagle, a longtime food bank partner, asking if Scales would be part of a television commercial with the grocery chain’s CEO, Laura Karet. The commercial — a first for Scales — would air widely in southwestern Pennsylvania and encourage people to donate to the food bank during Giant Eagle’s Fall Food Share, in which its customers can donate to the food bank as they check out.
“Of course I said yes,” says Scales, who speaks about the food bank with a confident smile in the Giant Eagle commercial. The food bank credits the spot with helping to increase donations from the Fall Food Share, raising a record $228,000 in 2013.
It also raised the food bank’s profile, which helped later in the year when The Pittsburgh Foundation offered to do a year-end matching program for donations to the food bank and some of its food pantries, putting up a $100,000 match challenge.
“Honestly, I was worried we wouldn’t get $100,000,” says Oliphant of the foundation. “It was late in the year, [and] people are spending money on Christmas.” The region’s residents contributed $308,000, resulting in a higher-than-expected matching amount. “People are just more generous than we realize,” he says. “And I think there’s something about hunger that people find unacceptable.”
Scales’ role as the food bank’s public face also was critical when, after a recent 90-minute executive staff meeting, she drove an hour across town from the food bank’s Mon Valley headquarters to the Day Apollo Subaru car dealership in Moon Township. At first glance, the visit seemed to be a photo opportunity with Day’s owner, Debbie Flaherty, and an oversized check for $4,833.19 — a lot of money but not the kind of donation that changes the food bank’s fortunes.
Scales had other hopes.
Anticipating questions from Flaherty, she came armed with statistics and facts about the local food pantry — how many people it serves, how many kids, how much food. Flaherty, however, wanted to know more about the food bank itself. She peppered Scales with questions about how it obtains and distributes food to its partners.
Scales answered and invited Flaherty to tour the food bank’s warehouse. Only then did Scales ask the question she really came across town to raise.
“We put on a blues festival every summer. We could really use you as a sponsor,” she told Flaherty.
“I think this is a good charity,” Flaherty responded. “I’d like to help.”
Two weeks later, after more research on the food bank and the blues festival, Flaherty told the food bank that Day would become a major sponsor. “That,” Scales says of her drive to meet with Flaherty, “was a successful trip.”
With the storm of challenges still out there, she likely will need to make a lot more of them in the future.