Karen Haren began as a Harvesters’ volunteer. Her desire to help hungry people became a passion and then a career. This summer Haren will retire as president and CEO of Harvesters, which she has led since 1999. As she prepares to end her official role at Harvesters, Haren reflected on how Harvesters and the face of hunger have changed.
How did you come to be involved with hunger relief?
KH: I have a background in food and nutrition, and I have never understood how we can live in the wealthiest country in the world and yet we have so many people who do not have enough food.I started donating to hunger relief, and when I heard about Harvesters in 1986, I wanted to help.
Harvesters operated very differently in its early years. What memories do you have that would surprise people who only know today’s large-scale, efficient, high tech facility?
KH: When I joined the Harvesters board of directors in 1986, it was much more of an operations board with many agenda items related to warehouse issues. When Harvesters’ warehouse was located at 2431 Prospect, the ancient freight elevator had a solid irreplaceable oak beam, and we were challenged to keep the elevator running. After we sold the building, we learned that we had been overloading the old elevator for years. Harvesters wasn’t too popular with our neighbors there, because we totally blocked the street every time a truck backed into the docks. Janie Quisenberry (Stone) and I were the board’s PR committee. We developed Harvesters’ first annual report and used to review donor lists at Janie’s kitchen table.
What have been the most important changes at Harvesters?
KH: We have continually adapted to changes in the food industry, to changes in need during recessions or welfare reform and to natural disasters. We operate as a business using technology, such as our online ordering system, and business processes and tools to be effective and efficient. We have been innovative, adding nutrition education classes, programs such as BackSnack, Kids Cafe, Mobile Food Pantries, food rescue, SNAP Outreach and the demonstration garden. Harvesters is a national leader in food banking and was named by Feeding America as the 2011 Food Bank of the Year.
How has food banking changed in the last 25 years?
KH: Over the past 25 years, the food industry has changed in several ways. In your grocery store there are fewer aisles of shelf-stable food and many more prepared and perishable foods. Food industry donations to food banks such as Harvesters reflect that change. Much less shelf-stable food is being donated, while donations of fresh produce and other perishable foods are up significantly. Today, food is a global commodity and secondary markets now compete for food that might have been donated to food banks in the past.
Other changes include an increase in the number of food recalls and food safety issues. And the industry is much more health conscious.
How has the face of hunger in our community changed?
KH: I recently ran across an annual report from 1988, showing an older woman digging through a trash can. Harvesters works hard to educate the community about who is hungry. There are children, families in rural, suburban and urban areas as well as seniors among the faces of those who are hungry. We also have seen an increase in working families, who struggle to put food on the table. Increasingly we have seen the dichotomy of those who need food assistance also facing serious chronic health issues – obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
To what do you attribute Harvesters’ success?
KH: We are mission driven, and we stay focused on the most basic of human needs, nutrition. We engage so many wonderful volunteers of all ages. From my desk I see bus loads of children who are here at Harvesters almost every day helping us sort and pack food. Harvesters gives so many the opportunity to make a difference—to provide a meal for someone who otherwise might not have food. We have a dedicated, competent staff and board. The work is accomplished with a strong team and community partnerships. We have a caring community - individuals, faith based organizations, schools, businesses, that support harvests through donations of time, money, food and voice.
Thinking about your career in hunger relief, what has been the biggest surprise?
KH: I am constantly surprised by how many times I am thanked for the great work that Harvesters does. I honestly think this is the best job, leading a wonderful organization that does important work. And the work is so challenging and rewarding. And then people all the time thank you for the work Harvesters does! It doesn’t get better than that!
Harvesters is feeding a record number of people. What gives you hope that Harvesters can achieve its mission to feed hungry people today and end hunger tomorrow?
KH: I have always been hopeful because this is a problem we can solve. We accomplish our mission every single day. I know that at the end of the day, we made a difference. Because we were here and we moved food to where it was needed most, we educated someone about hunger, we made a difference. There is hope in providing someone a meal.
Do you intend to stay involved in the issue of hunger relief?
KH: Yes, while I am stepping down from the CEO position, I am not leaving my commitment to the issue of hunger behind. I will continue to support Harvesters and Feeding America, the network of food banks. I view this as a new phase with new and different ways I can help!