Pittsburgher of the Year: Lisa Scales

As the leader of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Scales has mobilized the organization to feed the vulnerable members of our community amid a pandemic that threatens their survival.

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The rain fell relentlessly as the line of cars inched into the parking lot, backed up further than Lisa Scales could see. Peering through fogged-up glasses, she walked up to each car and asked the driver where she should put the box of food. “In the back seat or the trunk?”

Once the provisions were loaded up, she asked, “How are you holding up?”

This wasn’t small talk.

I’m scared.

I just lost my job.

I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Scales didn’t tell the drivers that she’s the CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. That’s not her way. For all the recipients knew, Scales was another soggy food bank volunteer.

Instead, she said, “We’re here for you. If you need more food, please reach out to us.”

She and her staff had underestimated the explosive surge in demand. Later that evening, they ran out of food at the Duquesne warehouse, the headquarters of the food bank. After passing out boxes to more than 800 cars, the food bank had to turn away another 200 who had waited in miles of traffic on Route 837. Driving home empty-handed was a gut punch to those who had waited for hours. For Scales, it was a worst-case scenario — a food bank turning away people worried about their next meal.

This was Wednesday, March 18, just as the state shutdown began. As the pandemic dragged on, Scales and her staff often worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, to find new ways to meet the drastic surge in need — a 30 percent increase in the spring and a similar increase in the fall.

For her ingenuity for feeding people under the most stressful conditions, Scales, 61, has been awarded Pittsburgh Magazine’s Pittsburgher of the Year.

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When people think of a food bank, they might envision a dusty church basement crammed with canned soup and jars of peanut butter. But Scales presides over a 96,000-square-foot warehouse that looks like a Costco, with crates of canned goods and fresh produce stacked up on shelves and workers zooming around in industrial scooters.

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Read More: Previous Pittsburghers of the Year.

The warehouse is filled with 5.6 million pounds of food, or a month’s supply. Some, such as frozen blueberries and frozen chicken, are USDA commodities. Others are donations from Giant Eagle, Aldi and other places. The food bank also purchases certain items such as eggs and spaghetti sauce. Much of the food ends up in almost 600 food pantries, soup kitchens and other partners dotted throughout 11 counties.

On a recent day, Scales arrived at work in faded jeans, a black windbreaker, black Merrell shoes, and a face mask — standard roll-up-your-sleeves attire. She carries a note in her pocket from a woman she met during a South Hills drop-off. It reads: “Thank you to all. Very much appreciated.” It is signed “anonymous” under a smiley face.

Scales’ cramped office is as unpretentious as she is.

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“She is such a real, practical person who can talk to anyone,” says Laura Karet, chief executive of Giant Eagle and co-chair of the food bank’s capital campaign. “She breaks big complex problems into bite-sized nuggets that anyone can do something about. She is such a humble person. I don’t think many people realize how unbelievably brilliant she is.”

Scales exudes an even-handed calm, but there were many moments in the early weeks of the pandemic when she and her staff felt overwhelmed by the momentous task of feeding more people. Those days left her feeling jagged. “It’s like you are on, on, on and the energy is vibrating through your body the whole day,” she says. “People’s lives are literally depending on you.”

She became the nationwide face of the battle against food insecurity after a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo of the traffic jam of people waiting for food went viral. She did scores of interviews with the national press, including an interview with Anderson Cooper that resulted in so many online donations that the website crashed.

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Even as a glass-half-full person, Scales was crushed when the food bank turned people away. “I don’t think I ever heard such sadness in her voice. I could see it in her eyes,” says her sister, Gretchen Rizzo. “She is usually the most positive person. It weighed on her tremendously.”

Those early weeks of the pandemic reminded Scales of the throbbing pressure of her stints with Feeding America after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and following 9/11 in New York City, when she managed incoming donations. But those disaster assignments only lasted a few weeks, deliberately kept short because of the stress. In contrast, the food crisis around the pandemic has dragged on for nine months and counting. Scales and her 130-person staff had to not only distribute more food but find new ways to do it.

Instead of the Produce to the People walk-up distributions they previously held in many communities, the food bank has moved to a drive-through model with items already boxed. To better gauge the number of food boxes needed, people are asked to sign up ahead of time, though no one’s turned down if they don’t. The group also started home delivery for people 60 and older, a service they will continue post-pandemic. They distributed 25 million pounds of food from March 16 to Sept. 30, a 30 percent increase over the same months in 2019.

“We are more nimble,” she says. “We are a different organization.”

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A drive-up distribution day in Duquesne a few days before Christmas ran like a well-oiled machine. Instead of clogging up the parking lot and Route 837, the traffic was rerouted onto Linden Avenue.

Second in line was Christine Yeager, a 62-year-old from Carrick who landed her coveted spot by arriving at 9:30 a.m., two and a half hours early. On a fixed income, she comes every two weeks and gives whatever she can’t use to her kids. Yeager said she’s grateful to the volunteers. “God bless them for their kindness,” she says.

A few cars down the line, John, 77, who preferred not to give his last name, says his property taxes are killing him, and he’s behind on his electric bills. It’s a vicious cycle and he can’t get ahead. Waiting in line at the food bank is not what he envisioned for his life, but it’s the only way to stretch his shrinking dollars.

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“It’s so damn embarrassing to be here,” he says. Especially when the TV helicopter buzzes overhead. But he’s grateful for all the food bank employees and volunteers working on this frigid day. “They are freezing their butts off to help us.”

A flag person waved up cars in groups of 25. As volunteers loaded food boxes into cars with the efficiency of a Nascar crew, Scales chatted up the drivers, taking in each of their stories. A mom with a teenage daughter in the front seat says she only has part-time seasonal work and she’s afraid. An unemployed machinist says he can’t find work. Driver after driver opened up to her.

“We’re here for you,” Scales tells them. She met another woman with stage 4 cancer who was afraid to go to the grocery store, didn’t have any family and didn’t want to impose on her neighbors. So the drive-through line became her only way to eat.

In two hours, some 650 cars leave with boxes filled with frozen ham, apples, winter squash, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage and other food. As the motorists were directed out, they beeped their horns or yelled out the window — “God bless you! Thank you!” Scales waved back, the energy between them palpable.

Sometimes critics look askance at the occasional Cadillac or BMW owner receiving donations and ask, “Why is that person getting free food?”

Scales replies: “Walk in someone else’s shoes. You never know. It could be a woman who’s divorced, not getting any support, and hasn’t been in the workforce. And that Cadillac is the car she has and it works. A lot of these people had well-paying jobs and they lost those jobs. It’s the car that runs. You can’t get into those types of judgments.”

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Most kids don’t want to grow up to be the CEO of a nonprofit. Scales was no exception. She wanted to be a lawyer like her father and grandfather, who had a practice in Greensburg.

She grew up in Hempfield in West­moreland County, the second of four kids. Born prematurely and weighing just 2.5 pounds, she stayed five weeks in the hospital. But she made up for that slow start by growing into an athletic girl who was always outside playing tennis, softball and basketball, says her father, John. Naturally big-hearted, she volunteered at a nursing home and for other charities.

In high school, she attended Shady Side Academy, living on campus, and received a bachelor of arts at Seton Hill University before graduating from Boston University School of Law. Then she moved to Chicago to work for the city as an assistant corporation counsel, overseeing taxi, liquor and nursing home licenses. Two years later, she moved back to West­moreland County to work in the family law practice, Scales & Murray.

As much as she liked working with her father, the law wasn’t her passion. Then one day she went to a party and met a woman who did fundraising for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The woman’s passion for her work sparked something in Scales.

Scales left the family law firm in 1991 and the next year took a $5-an-hour job as an interviewer for a childhood hunger study for Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based advocacy group. It was an unusual career path but her father says he was proud of her. “Some people are just born to help other people,” he says.

Two weeks later, she became field supervisor, the first of several promotions within the organization. In 1996, she was hired at the food bank as a program supervisor. She was the chief operating officer for 10 years before becoming the CEO in 2012.

Her many fans say she combines the empathy of a humanitarian with the strategic skills of a lawyer.

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Bill Fuller, president and corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group, joined the food bank board about the time that Scales was made CEO. Under her leadership, he watched the food bank mature from a small organization with a slight hippie vibe to a “well-run machine that gets things done. It’s professional, clean and efficient, but it’s still as warm and loving as it always was.”

One of Scales’ accomplishments as CEO was increasing the amount of fresh produce distributed — about a third of the food it gives out. The goal is to make fresh produce half of all its distribution — or 20 million pounds annually — by 2025.

But the food bank doesn’t stop at making nutritious food available. Scales believes Pittsburgh became the first food bank in the country to hire a registered dietitian in 1990, and the nonprofit hands out recipe cards for healthy meals.

In a capital campaign called Grow Share Thrive, the food bank is undergoing a major renovation and expansion of its warehouse, adding refrigerated storage and packing spaces, refrigerated loading docks, an on-site food pantry, expanded offices and more space for its army of volunteers.

“She has built the reputation of the food bank in the community. Everyone knows the food bank. It’s the gold standard,” says John McIntyre, chairman of the food bank board and a partner at the law firm Reed Smith.

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Scales wants to combat the root causes of hunger. Knowing that some children go home to empty cupboards, she started the Backpack Program to help alleviate weekend hunger. Students are discreetly handed a weekend’s worth of food and healthy snacks on Fridays. The food bank also has opened pantries in secondary schools and colleges. “Kids who are hungry can’t focus in class, they tend to have behavior problems and they have increased anxiety,” she says. The food bank also partners with hospitals, doctor’s offices, and community groups to hand out provisions to those who are food insecure.

For Scales, whose to-do list never ends, time off for self-care has to be scheduled — something she also emphasizes with the staff.

But the time off isn’t the only thing that revives her through the unending grind of the pandemic. “I believe when I look back in five or 10 years what will stay with me is the gratitude of the people — the waving, the thank yous, the horn honking, the people who said, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without this food.’”

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