Gleaners Food Bank provided 35 million meals to hungry Hoosiers in 2019. One year later, that number soared to 73 million.

It was good timing for a bad situation. John Elliott, MBA ’11 took over as President and CEO in 2016 to move Gleaners away from “working more solo,” as he says they’d been known, to working with intentional community partners and a staff empowered as decision-makers.

If he hadn’t, many more people might have gone hungry when COVID-19 hit.

Prepared by life … and Butler

A decade earlier, Elliott earned an MBA at Butler University. After having been a U.S. diplomat, a corporate manager, and a college executive director, he’d become Media Spokesperson/Public Affairs Manager for The Kroger Co. and decided his experience, while vast, wasn’t enough.

“I was being assigned more and more complex responsibilities and didn’t feel I had some of the necessary foundational knowledge,” he says. “If Butler hadn’t been so flexible, I couldn’t have completed the program. There were so many instances where faculty made accommodations for me.”

He kept in touch with those faculty, using Butler students on Kroger-sponsored capstone projects and now as Gleaners volunteers.

Elliott himself began as a Gleaners volunteer—until the board realized they needed him at the helm. His first step: Create a solid strategic plan with deliberate partners. Within five work groups, more than half of those involved were subject matter experts from outside the organization.

Supply chain opportunities

The plan they developed reflects how this Butler MBA graduate views partners and funders: as investors.

“When I got here, we were doing things like a small nonprofit. Now, every decision balances compassionate service with efficiency and cost-effectiveness. We’ve got to think like a mid-sized supply-chain company as well as a nonprofit.”

He has identified plenty of opportunities for efficiencies and partnerships in that supply chain.

“To close the meal gap* in 2020 would have meant doing two-and-a-half times the food distribution we did in 2019. We couldn’t go to our donors and ask for two-and-a-half times as much as they gave the year before,” Elliott says. “Instead, we had to do everything we possibly could to produce more meals for the same dollars. In 2016, Gleaners spent 41 cents per meal. We finished 2020 at 17 cents.”

More thoughtful partnerships are helping Gleaners find new sources for hard-to-get food, such as fresh produce, and identify people who need help but haven’t been asking.

“Why do we talk casually about someone missing a meal? This country produces more food than any other on the planet. We waste 40 percent of it. We don’t have a food shortage,” Elliott says. “Solutions are in getting the right food in the right place at the right time.”

Here for the long haul

In 2017, Gleaners became one of only six food banks in the Feeding America network to operate a regional co-op. It went from receiving zero pounds of produce from farms to more than 39 million pounds—food that would’ve rotted in the field.

Elliott and Gleaners will keep looking for such solutions with the support of its partners.

“We’re not through this pandemic. For the families we serve, we’re in a multi-year recovery. But we have a great team and dozens of new partnerships. Gleaners employees have been here every day and will continue to be.”

*The number of meals Hoosiers need vs. the number of meals the charitable sector can provide

Photo by Caitlin Sullivan