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“People work and don’t make enough money to feed themselves,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, on March 12. She holds up a lengthy application for food stamps to demonstrate why it’s difficult for the poor to receive government assistance.

Kate Maehr

Feeding the need

Demand for food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository has jumped 36 percent in recent years. Executive Director Kate Maehr tells Kellogg what she’s doing — and what you can do — to help feed the hungry

By Rachel Farrell

3/19/2010 - In October 2007, the U.S. economy was looking pretty good.

Unemployment rates were low. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped to 13,900. Apple was making a splash with the iPhone, while Toyota’s Prius was a hit with consumers.

“It was, by many measures, the best of times,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), who visited Kellogg March 12 to deliver a talk at the Executive MBA Luncheon Speaker Series. “And yet, in that same month, the Greater Chicago Food Depository provided food to 284,844 individuals.”

In other words, Maehr explained, “even when unemployment is low and things are going well, we still have a huge population of poor people across the country who need emergency and supplemental food.”

GCFD is the largest and most sophisticated food bank in the country. Through a network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, it distributes donated and purchased food to more than 678,000 Cook County residents each year.

Not surprisingly, the economic downturn has caused demand for food at GCFD to spike dramatically. Since 2006, the number of people served has increased 36 percent. Last year, that amounted to 58.3 million pounds of meat, produce, dairy products and nonperishable food.

Those numbers have left Maehr more than just concerned. “I’d be lying if I said we weren’t terrified right now,” she says, adding that she doesn’t expect the demand for food to drop significantly when the economy improves. “When unemployment rates go back down, we’ll still see people turning to food pantries. Many of the people we see will never make it back into the workforce. There are people who have been devastated by this economic downturn.”

To better serve the residents of Cook County — and get one step closer to ending hunger — Maehr runs GCFD like a for-profit business. She understands the importance of branding and leadership and has invested capital in both areas. “Nonprofits need to pay well and have strong benefit programs and hire people like you,” she said, referring to EMBA students. “I shouldn’t have to take the leftovers.”

When an EMBA student asked how she — and others — could support the fight against hunger, Maehr offered a three-pronged answer:

One, be aware of the problem of poverty in America. “There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing people who don’t understand that there are hundreds of thousands of people who live below the poverty line,” she said. Two, understand the root causes of why people are hungry. “People work and don’t make enough money to feed themselves,” said Maehr. “That is messed up. If you’re an employer, ask yourself: Could you live on that salary? If the supply end is taken care of, it makes my job a lot easier.” Three, contribute money and food to keep GCFD going.

Maehr concluded by saying that educating people about hunger in America is central to eradicating the problem.

“If everyone knows that there is hunger, everyone will be a part of the solution,” she said. “I’ve yet to meet someone who thinks that it’s OK to be hungry in America.”