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The Good Earth

FOOD Share’s Bonnie Weigel and the new culture of philanthropy

By Maxine Hurt — Photos by David Yamamoto

 

onnie Weigel has a special relationship with the good earth of Ventura County. This has been her family’s home for three generations; her grandfather grew strawberries in the rich Oxnard soil, selling them at a stand just down the road from her new office, where she serves as CEO of the nonprofit organization FOOD Share.

Indeed, she has a special relationship with the land. But lately she’s been tilling the community, harvesting relationships while managing the Strawberry Festival and editing Skirt! magazine. Now in a position to serve Ventura County’s hungry (yes, they do exist), Weigel has unearthed a cornucopia of support for a cause that feeds the heart and soul of our community.

Ventana Monthly: What was your first thought when you were asked to be CEO of FOOD Share?

Bonnie Weigel: Ten years ago when I was looking at nonprofits, I thought, FOOD Share is really the queen bee; I'd love to do something at that level. Fast forward and I'm offered the position. My first thought, knowing the economy, was, What is it going to be like to take that on and lead that team? Then I realized it really had nothing to do with me, that it was beyond me. I had to look at the bigger picture. I'm just a small part of the puzzle, but if I could help then I was all for it.

No small operation, FOOD Share's warehouse in Oxnard is stacked floor to ceiling.

I understand you didn't have any experience in food banking. What attracted you to this endeavor?

It’s a very basic mission—taking care of somebody by feeding them. And we know from looking at social issues that when you feed someone, many other problems go away. I think it was that purity of mission that drew me to it. It really is the foundation of so many other solutions.

Is there a connection between the work you do now and what you did as a magazine editor or manager of the Strawberry Festival?

Yes, relationships. It all goes back to relationships. You've heard about six degrees of separation? Well in Ventura County, it's more like three degrees. I think the relationships you form all through the different phases of your professional career come back full circle. I'm talking to colleagues I haven't spoken to in 15 years who are saying, Bonnie, we've read you're at FOOD Share. I want to help. What can I do?

How would you describe the current state of philanthropy?

There is a new idea in the culture of philanthropy. We are not looking to Corporate America anymore to solve our problems. We know they are a part of the solution—but they are not the solution. It is up to us to look out for each other and take care of one another.

FOOD Share depends on hundreds of volunteers every month.

It sounds like you’re describing a national movement toward community-oriented philanthropy.

The Obamas have been really involved in looking at how society comes together to make things stronger. I don't know if it was the timing of the elections, but I think somehow the message was delivered through his whole campaign using viral marketing. It’s no different for nonprofits. I have been watching this trend for probably the last three years. Small businesses realize they are part of the bigger picture: if I donate a little money and everybody does too, then we have enough to take care of everyone. That's a big paradigm shift.

How is the current economy going to affect FOOD Share?

We know we are going to have to serve more people than ever. That's where we've reached out to collaborative partnerships. We have joined efforts to create Ventura County Together, which is a collaborative group of nonprofits. We find that we are serving the same clients, whose needs are food, healthcare, and shelter. Why not work together and help them? The whole idea is one neighborhood at a time—just take care of what is in your backyard. Do a food drive for your street.

Would people in Ventura County be surprised at the amount of their neighbors who go hungry?

I know I was. Brand new to the food bank industry, I knew we had a need. But I didn't realize that nationwide the statistics are one in eight, and here it's closer to one in six. When you are looking at friends in line at the grocery store, just think: one out of every six people there is hungry right now, or they are ‘hunger insecure’—by that we mean they are going to be thinking soon about where their next meal will come from. And the face is different. It's not who we think.

Describe the new face.

It can be our friends who we know are at a very low income level and need our help regularly—that's the basis of who we serve. But now we have this new layer. You can see the mom pull up in her Volvo, and she may not have extra money. She can barely make her mortgage payment. Her husband has possibly been laid-off, or she has. That's the new face we are seeing. I had an email from somebody saying, I used to be a donor and now you are helping me. I just want you to know how grateful I am. That puts it in perspective.

What have you learned about hunger?

When you feed a person, there is so much more that you are giving them beyond nourishment. You are giving them back a part of their dignity. You are giving them their health. You are giving them hope. Not only are you getting food out to a client, you are helping them feel like somebody cares, that they matter. [Hunger] is definitely the root of a lot of different things, like health care. If your kids aren't getting the right nutrition, what's that going to cost? Even adults are going to get sick, and then they get secondary diseases. If they get sick, they can't work. If they can't work, they can't support their families. So you see how hunger is at the core.

What would surprise people about FOOD Share?

I have a fresh set of eyes, since it's only been 60 days. How well we work with our volunteer base was a surprise. I don't think people understand that we have about 320 volunteers every month working with our staff of about 24. Or that we feed 40,000 people every month. When you realize that, you get a sense of the operation. The volunteer aspect is huge. Some people have been here 20 years. I was also surprised that we work with so many other organizations. There are over 150 partners we work with: all nonprofits, from the Red Cross to this tiny little church pantry.

The Weigel family at Kathy and Jake DeVans’ working ranch in Somis, where they board their horses and spend quality time Ventura County style. Left to right: Allie, Bonnie, Dan, and Hannah.

What do you do when you are not working?

It's all about our two daughters; they are the center of our world. We also love to be on the water and with our horses. Living here in Ventura County, I want to be outside as much as I can. We like to spend our time out at the ranch or on the water. And I love to cook and have tons of people in the house. It goes back to food and relationships.

03-01-2009

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