For People with bishop Rob Wright

Fighting Hunger with Atlanta Community Food Bank CEO Kyle Waide

For People
For People
Fighting Hunger with Atlanta Community Food Bank CEO Kyle Waide

About the episode

What if your family had to choose between paying for groceries or healthcare? For many in the US, this painful dilemma is a harsh reality. In today’s episode, we’re joined by Kyle Waide, President and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, to unpack the staggering 50 percent increase in demand for food assistance over the past two years. Rising inflation and financial strain have left countless families, even those juggling multiple jobs, struggling to put food on the table.

Bishop Wright and Kyle have a conversation about the broader economic landscape of the US, the unwavering support of volunteers, and the faith based organization that stand alongside the growing work of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Listen in for the full conversation.

Learn more about the Atlanta Community Food Bank here.

As President and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Kyle Waide leads one of the largest hunger relief organizations in the U.S. Working with a network of 700 community-based nonprofit organizations across 29 Georgia counties, Kyle and his team facilitate the distribution of $250 million in food and resources each year to approximately 700,000 neighbors facing food insecurity. During his tenure, Kyle has led the Food Bank through a decade of dramatic growth and expansion, quadrupling its annual output while launching multiple innovative initiatives to expand food access and increase food security.

Prior to joining the Food Bank, Kyle held several management roles at The Home Depot Inc. in disaster relief, corporate responsibility, community affairs and store operations. He also previously served as a founding member of the team that created and launched Charity Navigator, the nation’s premier charity evaluation service. Kyle is a graduate of Harvard University and an alumnus of Teach For America. Kyle and his family attend All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta.


Kyle Waide: 0:00

Just folks are under a lot of pressure. More than half the people we serve have incomes that are too high to qualify for food stamps. So this, by definition, means these folks are working and they’re trying to get ahead, but just in an environment where things are getting more and more expensive, just the math doesn’t work. They’re upside down and they’ve got to find ways to make up for that resource shortfall. This is four people, with bishop rob right hey everyone.

Bishop Wright: 0:41

Bishop Rob Wright here, and this is For People. We’ve got a special guest today, someone whose work I admire an awful lot. We’ve got Kyle Waide here, who is the President and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Kyle, welcome.

Kyle Waide: 0:59

Well, thank you so much for having me, Bishop, and it’s just a privilege to be here with you this morning.

Bishop Wright: 1:05

Thank you, Kyle, and so glad to hear more about the Community Food Bank. Kyle is a husband and he’s a dad. He’s done some work at Harvard for education. He currently serves as the chair of the National Council for Feeding America, which is the largest public charity in the United States. He’s a member of Rotary and so on and so forth, but he gets up every day thinking about Atlanta and beyond and the deficit of food hunger among us. So, Kyle, why is this your thing? Why do you spend time worrying about this, trying to program this, trying to respond to this need?

Kyle Waide: 1:53

Well, look, first of all, just a few things about the food bank. So our food bank is one of the largest food banks in the country. We serve 29 counties here in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia banks in the country. We serve 29 counties here in metro Atlanta and North Georgia and we work with a tremendous network of partner organizations, community-based nonprofits and churches all across North Georgia to get food and resources to those organizations, who then in turn get that food and resources out to families facing food insecurity in their local communities.

Kyle Waide: 2:27

And what we know, both at a macro level from all the data and from our day-to-day frontline experiences, is that food insecurity is an urgent issue.

Kyle Waide: 2:40

It has grown tremendously over the last two years as families have confronted the impact of inflation in their lives, and we are serving today 50 percent more people than we did just two years ago.

Kyle Waide: 2:55

We’re serving about 11 and a half percent of the population. What we also know is that food insecurity hunger is not just a problem about having access to food. Today it impacts a family and their ability to thrive in life in a much more profound way, where they, as they are trying to navigate the shortfall of resources in their lives, they’re having to make all sorts of trade-off decisions about what bills to pay, what bills not to pay, how do I stretch my dollar farther? You know I have to eat less nutritious food and that has downstream impacts on their health, on their stress levels, on their ability to show up and be productive at work and on their kids’ abilities to show up at school and really learn and grow in the way that they need to. So solving for food insecurity, solving for hunger, is not just about getting food to folks. It’s about giving them a better opportunity to succeed in life. And just we need every neighbor in our community to have the food that they need so that we can collectively be a stronger community for everybody.

Bishop Wright: 4:15

It says that if I take a look at some of the information on your website, it says that you facilitate the distribution of $250 million in food and resources each year to approximately 700,000 neighbors. And so you know. It seems like you know. We’ve always had this narrative about food insecurity. You know, as long as I’ve been paying attention, we know that there are people who are in our midst who have a hard time making ends meet that was the old phrase, making ends meet. So maybe zoom out just a little bit and tell us what’s going on. I mean, this is a country where luxury goods are selling like never before. There’s plenty of money in the system. There’s a lot of people working one and two and three jobs. What’s going on? Why the need for the Atlanta Community Food Bank?

Kyle Waide: 5:09

It’s a really vexing question, I think, for a lot of folks to think about the just extraordinary wealth and economic vitality here in our country and, at the same time, having just unprecedented levels of people who are challenged in this way. I think right now what we see is that it’s really a tale of two economies. You know we have an economic environment where if you’re kind of on the right side of having assets, of having income and wealth, it’s as good as it’s ever been in a lot of ways. And you know we’d like interest rates to go down and all those other things. But man, I mean, when you look at asset appreciation over the last five years, you are feeling really great about where you are. On the other hand, if you didn’t have those things going into the pandemic, you’re, by definition, even farther behind.

Kyle Waide: 6:04

Number one, and then number two you know a third of our country live in households with $55,000 in annual income or less right, a third of the country.

Kyle Waide: 6:18

And if you think about inflation for a minute, you know folks are spending, say, a hundred extra dollars a week on gas and groceries, rent and your interest rate on your mortgage and your credit cards, and all that stuff has gone up, health care costs continue to go up and be pushed more and more on individual households rather than on their employers or other kind of payers, and so folks are just being squeezed in a way that is just mathematically not going to work. You know, a hundred extra dollars a week, that’s $5,200 a year in after-taxed income that folks have to come up with to make up for that shortfall. And again, if you’ve got a family with $50,000 in annual income now, I’ve got to go make up for 10% of my income and even more than that post-tax in order to deal with just the fact that things cost more. And that’s just for gas and groceries. So just folks are under a lot of pressure.

Kyle Waide: 7:21

More than half the people we serve have incomes that are too high to qualify for food stamps. So this by definition means these folks are working and they’re trying to get ahead. But just in an environment where things are getting more and more expensive, just the math doesn’t work. They’re upside down and they’ve got to find ways to make up for that resource shortfall.

Bishop Wright: 7:49

You know you’re a person of faith in a sea of need and I know that sometimes, when you stare at the data, you can get overwhelmed with all the ways that we need to continue and even deepen our commitment to people on the edge. Even deepen our commitment to people on the edge. Is there a biblical story? Is there a Bible verse? Is there a hymn? Is there something that keeps you buoyant in all of this and enables you to keep others buoyant?

Kyle Waide: 8:24

I’m not going to use a biblical verse, because the thing I point back to comes from a biblical, you know, a faith leader, dr King. And so just to underline your point, before I get to that, the data is overwhelming. You know, you think about these numbers. 11.5% of the population is getting food from our network every month. Right, one in nine people are getting food from a food pantry every month. That is hard to get your head around, and we’ve been dealing with this, you know, for a long, long time. You know we’ve been confronting this challenge for as long as you know our country has existed, and even a lot farther back than that, really. And so when you think about that, how do you show up every day and kind of keep pushing the boulder up the hill, so to speak? You know what Dr King talked about in his letter from Birmingham jail cell, that you know the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, right?

Kyle Waide: 9:37

And if you think, about where we are today and where we were, you know, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. There’s no doubt we still have lots and lots of work to do. The public policy environment right now is not favoring low-income families. There are significant challenges economic, you know, just structural challenges economically and the public policy environment got to overcome. But the progress we have also made is extraordinary. If you just think about the capacity of the food bank you bank, our food bank now, as you’ve mentioned, distributes $250 million. This year it’ll be $270 million worth of food and resources. We’ve invested all this capacity in all this capacity and infrastructure to meet people with better access to food support. We’re doing that in a way where it’s not just emergency food. The quality of the food is much different. On top of that, we’ve made significant improvements in the SNAP program federally so people have better access to food through that program.

Kyle Waide: 10:47

The health care system, even though it’s got huge flaws, is serving people differently, thinking about outcomes in terms of wellness, not just treating disease. You know there’s just a lot of things and, of course, all the civil rights progress we made. Obviously there’s setbacks, things go backward, but there’s also no doubt that we’re in a fundamentally different place than we were a generation ago. And so we remind ourselves that, hey, the challenge, day to day, is going to continue to be hard, but have faith in the fact that over time that arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. That keeps me going, I know that it keeps me going.

Kyle Waide: 11:33

And then, alongside that, I would also just mention, you know, our work is supported by so many just volunteers. Two-thirds of our network are faith-based institutions, a lot of churches, and so our distribution network in a large measure is a bunch of church pantries where you have folks just in the a congregation family. You know what? I’m going to take care of my community. I’m going to take care of my neighbor. People show up, not in a thankless, unrecognized kind of invisible way, day after day, week after week, know just serving others, and that also gives me tremendous hope to know that that spirit of goodness is so prevalent in our community.

Bishop Wright: 12:42

You know we’re we’re in Atlanta and you said 29 counties. Do we have good corporate partners in this regard? You know what’s the, what’s the, what are’s the, what are the companies in the corporate environment? What’s their work here with you? Are they showing up for this, for this good work?

Kyle Waide: 13:01

We certainly get tremendous support from the corporate community in Atlanta. Atlanta has a generous corporate community and you know there’s always more that we would like to see our partners do. We want to see them do more around public policy. We want to see them do more just in providing additional supports for their lower income frontline workers to think about, you know, their own health care offerings to folks to provide more support to the people they employ so that you know those folks at least don’t need help from the food bank. And many of them have done tremendous work over the last five years in particular to increase supports for their lowest paid workers. But it just in general. I think corporate philanthropy is alive and well in Atlanta and the people I meet out in the community who represent these different organizations, you know they see themselves as part of a community, not just, you know, just benefiting financially from that community.

Bishop Wright: 14:15

When I think about the Atlanta Community Food Bank, I remember its very humble beginnings. I mean it started, if I’ve got the story right. It started in basically a in a church, um and uh with, uh, with a very modest donation, uh, by a few folks, uh, and, and a guy who decided bill, who decided that, uh, this is what he wanted to do with his life, if I got that story right, I mean basically.

Kyle Waide: 14:46

So you know, Bill was, you know he went to divinity school and he was over at St Luke’s Episcopal Church downtown, just a few blocks away from the Episcopal Church I attend, and St Luke’s at the time had a soup kitchen. They were serving folks out of that soup kitchen. There was a tremendous challenge at that time in the late 70s, mid 70s, late 70s with homelessness in Atlanta, and so they were serving people as best they could. Bill was kind of a part-time member of the staff over there at St Luke’s and then he worked as a volunteer to some degree in the soup kitchen and he kind of recognized that man, we can’t feed all these people.

Kyle Waide: 15:38

The line’s getting too long. We need more churches involved and the thing that is keeping them from getting involved is just access to food that would allow them to do this work. So he started going around town asking different grocery stores hey, can y’all get us some food that we can use to feed people and that’ll help more churches get involved. Initially the grocery stores were like you know, bill, it’s funny that you ask that. We’re kind of in a business where we sell food.

Kyle Waide: 16:13

We don’t just give it away or else we can’t stay in business. So he had to come up with a way to make business sense for those donors to participate, and it was about how do we help you manage your inventory better, capture the surplus you got, keep track of it, and you’ll improve your business. You’ll be providing this surplus food that you can’t distribute in your store to me, and we’ll use it better than just sending it to the landfill. And so that led to some donations. In that first year they collected and distributed 15,000 pounds of food to different handful of churches there in downtown and midtown Atlanta, and then from there it’s just grown. Today we distribute 500,000 pounds of food a day. You know, in that first year they did 15,000 pounds in the first year I mean just in a year and we do 30 times that a day today. So it’s incredible how it’s grown. But you know what allowed it to grow.

Kyle Waide: 17:30

Certainly there’s a lot of operational, logistical expertise that we’ve developed over time, but it’s more about that community engagement. Our mission is to engage, educate and empower the community to fight hunger, and what’s remarkable about that mission is it doesn’t say anything about warehouses or trucks or logistics or any of that. It doesn’t even say anything about food. It’s about how do we capture the hearts and minds of the community, give them information they need, tools, they need, resources they need so that they’re empowered to go make a difference in making our community a better place. And food has always just been a tool to make that possible.

Bishop Wright: 18:16

Being the CEO of an organization. You and I probably have a lot in common, and that is part of your job is not just to oversee operations, et cetera, hiring and all that but it’s also to make the case right. And my guess is that there’s a lot of people that you talk to, or perhaps there’s a lot of people that you talk to who just don’t know it’s this bad right In America, in the state of Georgia, in our 29 counties. Is that true? Is there? Is there just some some perhaps blindness or or or just some some deafness to this? Is it just? Is it hid in the corners of things?

Kyle Waide: 18:58

You know, I think that’s always a challenge that we have to face is that, you know, folks kind of get myopically focused on the world that’s right in front of them and if you’re not somebody who’s dealing with food insecurity, it’s not really prevalent among your coworkers or your neighbors. And we’ve become increasingly this is one of our big challenges. We’ve got to reverse. We’ve become increasingly segregated socioeconomically as a community, so it’s really easy to sort of insulate yourself from these challenges. Our job is to help just make that more visible, to break it down in a way that people can relate to it.

Kyle Waide: 19:47

You know, I think a lot of folks have a hard time thinking about the sort of the big picture, the macro data. It’s just hard to get your head around. But if you can personalize the issue for folks, help them understand the particular challenges that a particular family is facing, and then they can understand that it’s easier for people to connect with that. Oh, I can imagine myself in that scenario, being really challenged and needing help, and then that I think motivates people to get involved more than kind of going through all the big data, that can be overwhelming. You know, part of that is because sometimes we don’t want to believe that the system that is benefiting so many of us is also got you know, flaws in it. That is leaving people behind and people get protective and defensive of the system that you know is benefiting them. They don’t want to feel culpability in that.

Kyle Waide: 20:57

But I think what’s more productive is also just to help personalize the issue for people, help them connect with. Hey, let me tell you a story about this great family. Hey, let me tell you a story about this great family, the mom of that family and she’s got two kids and it’s a single parent household. She works during the day feeding kids at a local elementary school as a member of the cafeteria team, and then she goes home and she relies on the food bank to feed her own kids. And let’s talk about why that’s the case.

Bishop Wright: 21:42

You know you talked about personalizing. You know, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament there are these amazing Bible verses. The first one is in Isaiah 58, when the prophet is reimagining community and he talks about sharing bread with the hungry. Like literally right, isaiah 58, six. But then Jesus does it most provocatively in Matthew 25, right Is that.

Bishop Wright: 21:59

Jesus makes it personal. He says as you’ve treated the hungry, the naked, the incarcerated, the sick, you’ve treated me in that similar fashion. So it is very personal and Jesus makes it personal. He lines up exactly with those folks and he’s trying to motivate the community. Well, let me say, on behalf of Atlanta and the 75 and a half counties that make up the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, thank you, thank you for your witness and thank you for your work, and thanks to all those who come together with you to do what Jesus asked us to do, which was to share our bread and to take care of those who’ve got their back against the wall, who are trying to make ends meet. So, Kyle, where can we get more information? Where can we send a donation? Where can we contact you at?

Kyle Waide: 22:57

Sure, our website is always the best front door to the food bank. It’s ACFB, atlanta Community Food Bank, acfborg. There you can certainly go and find ways to volunteer. You can find information on our tremendous network of partners. So if you need help, you can go there to get help. If you know people who need help, you can find a resource there to connect them to help and, of course, there you can donate and support us financially. As I mentioned, we are facing tremendous demand for support right now. We need support from the community. The food bank is a very efficient operation and a great philanthropic investment, so we take great pride in being a great steward of your resources and hope that people will contemplate getting involved in different ways, including financially, to support our mission.

Bishop Wright: 24:02

Kyle, thank you and God bless.