Eileen Spring

Eileen Spring
Food Gatherers, Executive Director
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 6 September 2006
Temperature: 75 F
Ceiling: mostly sunny
Ground: freshly cut
Wind: NNE at 14 mph


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TT with HD: Eileen Spring


[Ed. note: Food Gatherers is a non-profit committed to fighting hunger. More information on the University of Michigan Ross School of Business Domestic Corp Showcase (6 October 2006) for which Eileen Spring is serving as a panelist can be found here.]

HD: Well, you said just before we hopped on the teeter totter than you used to call these 'see-saws'?

ES: Yeah.

HD: What part of the country did you grow up in?

ES: New York.

HD: Huh. I thought that was more a Southern dialectal variation. Were your parents from the South at all?

ES: No, my parents are from Ireland.

HD: Right, you mentioned that you have this potato party, or do you call it a potato festival?

ES: A potato party. It's generally around St. Patty's weekend. It's sort of become a big tradition now, but it was more fun to have a party for St. Patty's Day that wasn't about drinking beer. A lot of people didn't quite get it, but I just mailed out this invite: come with a potato inspiration. So some people have gotten pretty creative about it over the years. First couple of years, guys would show up with potato chips and maybe a bottle of vodka [laugh] ...

HD: ... that'd be what I'd do ...

ES: ... but now folks have gotten quite thoughtful about it, so it's fun.

HD: Well, you mentioned potato jewelry. Is that jewelry that lasts longer than the party itself?

ES: It doesn't last too long. A friend of mine, who's a jeweler by trade, carved out--I don't even know how she did it--but she thinly sliced them and made them sort of hard, they were like little earrings. But then you can make potato stamps, too. So she did some artwork with that, and some people do limericks.

HD: So when it came time to decide on the food 'mascot' for Food Gatherers--you were around at that time, right?

ES: No, actually the carrot precedes me.

HD: Oh, well, if you had been around, would you have argued for the potato at all?

ES: You know, carrots are a lot more photogenic, I'd say. And they're a little more colorful, so they're easier. And that's part of why I think they've persisted in our lives. Because we don't spend a lot on graphic work, and anyone, regardless of their talent, can kind of draw the outline of a good carrot and color it in.

HD: Hmm, yeah, how do you draw a potato?

ES: They're difficult. They're difficult.

HD: Yeah, you can give clear instructions for how to draw a carrot: You start with an orange triangle ... In October, you're going to be on a panel in connection with the Domestic Corps with the School of Business over at the UM?

ES: Thanks for reminding me, I better start working on that.

HD: Well, one of the things I wanted to ask you about was the topic for your particular panel--and it's Paul Saginaw [of Zingerman's], and I forget the name of the other woman, she's from Chicago, I think, and two students, one on the undergrad side and the other an MBA student [Debbie Hinde, President and CEO of Vital Bridges; Elizabeth Huntley, MBA 07; Matthew Kaczynski, BBA 06]--but the topic for your panel is, "What is required to create a social enterprise in your non-profit?" And I stared at that question, and I realized I don't even know what it means. And maybe what I was stumbling over was this phrase 'social enterprise'. Is that like a technical term?

ES: Could we stop balancing for a second?

HD: Oh, sure!

ES: Sorry. Are you okay to just, is that too much leg pressure on you?

HD: No, it's fine. We can just hang out.

ES: For a lot of people it's relaxing, but for me it's just, Aghhhh! The origin of me being invited onto that panel was--and the part that I'm actually speaking about--Food Gatherers was started by Zingerman's, which is fairly unusual, particularly for a food bank. Most food banks come out of existing social service agencies or churches, not so much a deli. It's a key part of our history. I think there are lots of ways that private businesses do good things, but the way that Zingerman's has done it is fairly unique and also pretty smart and inspiring and a little more 'deep dish', if you will, than having a philanthropy budget and writing a check. Zingerman's owners are still fairly modest, I think, about the impact that they have. So I said I'd be happy to really speak about this, because I think I'd be more direct and forthcoming about really how much and what they've done for Food Gatherers what's behind that. So Zingerman's created the social enterprise of Food Gatherers. Specifically, within the non-profit community, it refers to movements for non-profits to create revenue for their organizations that are typically related to some businesses. In the typical way, we would just solicit money from individuals and write grants. This is a way to become somewhat self-sustaining, to create sort of a business venture--which we're certainly not doing right now--but I think that's the general discussion. So what are the elements of that? How do you do it successfully, both in terms of tax law and also stick to your mission and do it right?

HD: So are there thoughts of perhaps initiating some additional social enterprise within Food Gatherers that would generate an additional revenue stream?

ES: We're not there, yet. And I think it's fairly risky and difficult to do. We've looked into it. We're pretty much about feeding people. We've been less about addressing root causes of hunger. So we want to stick to what we do well, which is food distribution. But at the same time, when we have opportunities, we look at bigger-picture things and address root causes. And so the Carrot Way project is one example of that.

HD: This is the housing project.

ES: Probably a more germane one is the job-training program that we do now. We run the kitchen inside the Delonis Center, the community kitchen that provides the meals at the homeless center. And we have started doing job training in the food-service industry as part of that. The folks who we bring in to have training are themselves at risk of homelessness, if not currently homeless. And while they're doing a community service of providing a hot meal, we have this curriculum that they're going through that's been designed by us with the help of food service industry: giving them training and marketable skills, including certification so that they graduate with a degree.

HD: This is some sort of state-level certification?

ES: It's called Serve Safe. If you've ever worked in the food industry, it's like the GED of food services. It's actually required, ...

HD: ... so it demonstrates you understand the basic principles of practices that lead to keeping hot food hot and cold food cold ...

ES: ... exactly. It gives them a little bit more marketability. There's now laws requiring there to be a Serve Safe certified person in every kitchen. And a lot of places don't have one, and a lot of waitresses or short order cooks don't have one. So it's sort of a basic thing to help ...

HD: ... to differentiate them from the average-bear masses that might be applying for jobs.

ES: Yeah. We're not generating revenue from that as an organization. But we hope that our recipients 'generate revenue' from it so-to-speak, and will not be our recipients. One of the programs we were inspired by and that we modeled our program after is in D.C., called the D.C. Central Kitchen. They've taken that concept--they're in a bigger urban area obviously--and what they have now in their training program is a catering company on the offside, which is an opportunity for employment, an internship for their graduates. Their catering company does lunches for Congress people, and political folks, and whoever. They're just bidding on a catering job, just like anyone would. But you know there's an added value to it, because they're actually giving job opportunities to homeless people and then that revenue, as they make money in business, that goes back to D.C. Central Kitchen, and funds their program. That's cool and that makes a lot of sense for them. We haven't quite found the volume in what we're doing to lead to that kind of thing yet, but it could down the road.

HD: So as I understand the basic model for Food Gatherers, there's one component that is to go out and gather up the food, which is a bit different from the traditional notion of a food bank, which is to wait until people come in and make their deposit. And then there's the distribution component. I used to work a few years ago over at Busch's ValuLand in the receiving department, so part of my day-to-day was keeping watch over the grocery buggy full of bakery product that had been pulled that morning, to make sure that as it was pushed around the grocery back room that it didn't get thrown out before the Food Gatherers' food runners came and picked it up. And I always wondered about that loaf of bread that got pulled off the shelf of Busch's ValuLand: Where does it go exactly and how does it wind up in the stomach of a hungry person? So I was just wondering if you could take me through that?

ES: Well, you're right to note the distinction, because we got started as a food rescue program, which is what you're referring to, going to Busch's and such. That's still our primary service, and that's really our major niche. Along the way, we also became a food bank, which tends to deal with shelf-stable product that comes to us in an orderly way. But the essence behind food rescue is the distribution, because what we're picking up has a short life to it and ...

HD: ... by definition, it's already somewhat on its ...

ES: ... on its last legs, yeah. So we have created a pretty rapid distribution system for that. Our little trucks that are coming to Busch's are also going to agencies that very same day. We work with a network of non-profits, throughout the county, that are doing the direct service.

HD: So it's possible that the Food Gatherers truck would go to Busch's and would not necessarily go out to Carrot Way, where the central warehouse is, to be re-distributed from there? They might just go directly to where it's going to be eaten?

ES: I don't know if you want this level of detail! But for years we would do it that way. It was all en-route. We didn't have storage, so it would have to be off-the-back-of-the-truck, so to speak. What we found, though, was that we were giving very different treatment or different kinds of food to different agencies, just depending on the oddness of their day. So if we went to Executive Residence, which is a U of M Business School thing, which has very high-end food, then whoever happened to be the run after them always got filet mignon and lobster bisque, and if you happened to be after someone who just had a bread run, well ... ... You'd show up and you'd have to unload the truck at an agency, and we'd show up give some senior center and give them 100 tons of zucchini, and that wasn't very helpful.

HD: [laugh] So maybe you could use the first ton of it, but then ...

ES: ... exactly. So along the way, we realized that it made greater sense, with a couple of exceptions, we bring it back to the warehouse and sort it. Then we ensure more consistent supplies to a variety of agencies.

HD: So this is I guess similar to the model that FedEx uses or all these package transit companies, where no matter where you're sending it, it goes to Memphis first and gets sorted there.

ES: Yeah. Then the agencies we're working with, some of them are doing public distribution of food. Like SOS, or we have programs at low-income housing sites, where we go directly to those sites at community centers and there's folks who distribute it, often that same day or that same afternoon. Also we work with a number of agencies that are not doing public feeding programs in the same way that you would think. Say, they run a group home for folks who are disabled, so they have a congregate living situation with ten people. And we supply a significant portion of their food needs. So in that case, we're not dealing with a 'public food program', but those folks are low-income and that non-profit is struggling to make ends meet all the time. So by taking away a portion of their worries about food, we're able to help them devote more of their limited resources to their bigger picture things: utilities, housing, education, whatever.

HD: So I understand where the food comes from, I think, for the most part: you're going out and gathering it, but you're not purchasing it at all, right, for the most part?

ES: Well, we do now.

HD: So where does the cash money come from for that, and to pay--you have full-time staff people--there's salary and benefits, gas to put in the little trucks, ...

ES: That's the hard part now!

HD: So I know the Grillin' event out at the Washtenaw Farm Council grounds is one source of revenue.

ES: You know, we just beg for money all the time. That's pretty much what we do. The government's part is fairly small. That's one of things that's interesting about the origins of Food Gatherers. Being started by a private business, who provided our initial operating support for our first couple of years of our life, and not coming out of a social service agency or a church, we were not really well positioned to go and get government money at first. It was hard to grow without that. Instead, we had to depend on individual giving, and that's based on people knowing you ...

HD: ... and understanding that you're not a private for-profit enterprise.

ES: Exactly. That took a little bit of time. At the same time--this was in the late 80's when we were started--government funding was drying up. In retrospect now, after running the agency for 11 or so years now, it was actually really a good thing, because had we started with government money, we would have had we would have had this infrastructure that had been supported with government funds that would have just been diminished ...

HD: ... so from the get-go, you had to assume there wasn't going to be a huge influx ...

ES: ... we just had to manage our growth in a different way. And so now we get government money--it's about 10 percent or 12 percent maybe of our total revenue, which is manageable--whereas a lot of the non-profits we partner with come from the opposite end of it, where they had huge grants in the late 80's and very little private money, and now in a very short time frame had to change that. It's a little easier to do it the other way, although it limited our growth at the beginning.

HD: So you've been with Food Gatherers long enough to maybe assess this trajectory. My sense is that it's an extremely well-thought-of, a very successful organization, I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Food Gatherers ...

ES: ... knock on the teeter totter ...

HD: ... but I wonder, does that kind of success tend to work against you at all? In the sense that people think, Oh, yeah, Food Gatherers, they're doing okay without my ten bucks, without my fifty bucks, without my two-hundred and fifty bucks? I want to help out an organization that really needs the help. Do you encounter that mindset at all?

ES: That's a good question. When you're in the realm of campaigning for private money, whether that's foundations or solicitation, there's a certain newness and about a startup thing that people get very excited about ...

HD: ... they want to be the people who planted the seeds.

ES: Exactly. And we definitely benefited from that. So holding on and maintaining those donors and interests takes a different kind of strategy than getting them to begin with. It's just like with anything: Oh, we know of them, so they don't need us. So I think there is a piece of that. I find it more in the realm actually of foundations, ironically, whether it's grant-making entities, whether it's government or private foundations--there's a general gist there's too many non-profits--but part of why that happens is that foundations create that, because they want to do start-up funding. Everyone wants to do start-up funding, whether it's a program, or a non-profit, or an entire organization. Even within a non-profit, you've got these things where people want to start up new programs, but don't want to pay for the same old truck on the road. They want to do the new thing, and put their name on it, and don't want to pay for the ongoing operation stuff. So that's a real challenge to non-profits. What it leads to is a situation where you're just running after money. So-and-so Foundation wants to start this new thing and they just want to feed children who are eight years old and blah blah blah, so even if that wasn't your service as a non-profit, it's the only place where there's new money, so you say, Okay let's start this new program! Sometimes it's consistent with your mission, but often you're chasing the money. When you have a good program that's meeting a real need consistently, it's a little less sexy to pay for the ongoing operation costs of it. If it's a new thing, it's easier to get that money. So as a director, you're always trying to be very thoughtful when you start new programs to make sure you can sustain it, and that not just six months from now, but, Gee can we really make this work? There's a bit ta-do about it to begin with, where everyone's like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's great!! And then six years later, they're like, Oh, I'm done with that. So you have be really thoughtful about that.

HD: What else you have on your mind today? Anything specific?

ES: Why do you call yourself Homeless Dave? You have a nice house.

HD: Yes, I do, I have a nice house. Long story short, a third party who didn't know who I was, thought I might actually be a homeless guy and reported this to a friend of mine.

ES: In a bad way, or?

HD: In a cautionary way. I had delivered a package to my friend's place of work and the person who passed the package along to him warned him about opening it, because it had been dropped off by a homeless guy. That's the origin of that. So I just figured I'd embrace that.

ES: That didn't happen in Ann Arbor [laugh]?

HD: I'm afraid so! That absolutely happened in Ann Arbor.

ES: That's interesting. I was reading your interview with Dave DeVarti and you guys were talking about Carrot Way. When Food Gatherers started that project with Avalon, it was just about building our new building. Then we had this idea, Gee, we have this extra land, let's doing something constructive and partner with another non-profit and actually house people we've been feeding!! Who couldn't love that, right?

HD: And naming the whole thing, Carrot Way ...

ES: ... that was sort of a joke that I started, and was surprised that it stuck. No one ever ...

HD: ... what I like about that name is that it's suggestive of some kind of philosophy, as well. You know, the Taoist Way, the Marxist Way, the Carrot Way.

ES: The funny part was, when you do these designs for zoning and all this sort of stuff, I had just jokingly with the architect, said, We'll just call it Carrot Way. And then you're in these very formal hearings and you see City Council up there with 'Carrot Way' and I was thinking I never really thought they'd call it that. And then when there was some opposition ...

HD: ... to calling it Carrot Way??!!

ES: Well, no, opposition to developing housing there. Some of the opposition was quite legitimate in terms of some neighbors being against it, but that's just natural, so I don't mean to diminish people who were somewhat curious and skeptical about it. But the folks who were very upset about it and really against the building of housing, it was very amusing to have them testifying saying, I'm opposing Carrot Way! It just seemed like they were against Bugs Bunny, out of context. But it was a very eye-opening experience. I sound naive, I guess, to have been surprised by this, but when it was just about the Food Gatherers' warehouse, it didn't meet any opposition. And then when we added housing--it's a very modest development, it's only 30 units that Avalon did there--it really upset a lot of people. And I just thought, Well, who do you think we've been feeding? You know, these are the folks we've been serving. And your anecdote reminded me of that. People agree on some level agree with the notion that everyone should have food and everyone should have a home. Yet their perceptions about who those people are, when they're in their neighborhoods, so to speak, are quite different.

HD: So is there mass transit all the way up Pontiac Trail to Dhu Varren Road?

ES: Yeah, we actually have a bus now that turns around on Carrot Way.

HD: I was just wondering. I was up checking out the trail runs through Olson Park a while back. That's a really great amenity. The park plus Carrot Way has really changed the landscape up there.

ES: That was part of our inspiration, too. Our old building was a slaughterhouse. We backed up to the park, and across the street is the new church--the Ann Arbor Christian Chinese Church--and then on the left is the railroad tracks. That was the land. So we thought, Well, gee, maybe we can pull off this housing thing! It made sense, because we see the neighbors, we have a park here, which is a great thing for a family, a community to have next to their home, and there's a church. So it seemed like a perfect little neighborhood-in-the-making.

HD: Alright. So can you think of anybody here in town who you personally would like to go on a teeter totter ride with? And I'm not asking who you'd like to see ride the teeter totter with me, I'm asking who you would like to teeter totter with.

ES: I don't really like to teeter totter!

HD: And my hat's off to you for nevertheless coming over to teeter totter with me.

ES: It is funny, it brings back playground memories.

HD: So what were some of those memories?

ES: Well, I was the youngest, and my brothers ... I would just fall for these little tricks, and they'd do this thing, where you'd be high up in the air and I couldn't get down you know unless ...

HD: ... you jumped off ...

ES: ... yeah, and it seemed really high. Now it doesn't seem quite so high. But it was on the concrete, so you'd go whack, when you'd come down.

HD: Well, I've been trying to be smooth.

ES: No you're great, you've been very patient.

HD: So anybody you can think of if you had to go on a teeter totter ride with somebody.

ES: Somebody smaller than me!

HD: Okay, well I think Mary Sue Coleman is of smaller stature. My guest this morning was Todd Leopold and ...

ES: ... oh, he'd be a fun guest ...

HD: ... yeah, he was, and he said he'd like to ride with Mary Sue Coleman. I had a tough time holding my own against Todd on the teeter totter, and I think that Mary Sue would really need some extra ballast on her end to make that work. I don't know we'll see. Listen, I really appreciate your coming to ride the teeter totter, even though you really don't like to totter.

ES: I liked telling people about the appointment, though! Generally I'm leaving for boring meetings and stuff, but: I'm leaving to ride the teeter totter!

HD: Well, thanks for coming!