For Valerie Traore, giving back is a family tradition. “When most kids were in summer camp, we were volunteering,” says Traore of her summer breaks that included working in food pantries, senior centers, and tutoring, while growing up in Baltimore with her four siblings. With the importance of volunteerism instilled in her by her grandparents James and Lottie Shaw, Traore’s work with local food drives and clothing banks prepared her well. Today, the 48-year-old chief executive officer of Food Bank of South Jersey (www.foodbanksj.org) ensures approximately 101,000 people per year in a four-county coverage area (serving Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem counties) will not go hungry.
“Hunger is a natural disaster,” explains Traore about the economic epidemic plaguing people and families across the country. “So we are those first responders who ensure folks don’t fall into starvation.”
Hunger relief became a passion for Traore when she served as a temp office worker for the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore back in 1991. There, she saw firsthand the hardships of those who lived in poverty, and with her bachelors of science in management from Coppin State University in Baltimore, she decided then to dedicate herself to a career of nonprofit service.
“Hunger is not seasonal and it’s not discriminatory because it affects people from all walks of life,” she says. “You have kids going home to empty refrigerators, seniors struggling between whether they will pay for food or medicine.” After climbing the ranks at anti-hunger organizations such as New York City’s City Harvest, and Chicago-based Feeding America, Traore took the helm of Food Bank of South Jersey, located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, in 2006.
But leading a service organization has its share of challenges. “Like all nonprofits, we’re struggling for funding,” admits Traore. The recession and slow recovery has particularly affected Traore’s work. As a result of economic troubles, “many people who were once middle class have burned through their savings and are now standing in the pantry lines,” she says. Responding to this need, Food Bank of South Jersey distributed about 8.2 million pounds of food in 2009—equivalent to 2 million grocery bags and up from 4.5 million pounds in 2008—from its 55,000-square-foot warehouse. But with a $2.8 million operating budget, the bulk of which is paid through private and government funding, the organization has had to use more dollars to amass and distribute food, leaving little left to increase its staff of 33 full-time people and one part-time person.
Recognizing they needed more hands to get the job done, Traore decided that rather than offer less help, she would opt for an optimistic attitude. “Many people aren’t working and still want to be useful or need to get away from their own problems and be engaged,” she notes, so the married mother of one appealed to volunteers for help through the food bank’s website, corporate presentations, volunteer fairs, and word of mouth. Today, 1,800 people help the Food Bank achieve its mission. And Traore is pleased with the collective output. She adds, “The recession has flooded us with lots of highly skilled people who I couldn’t afford to pay otherwise.” Of the 1,800 volunteers, Traore estimates that about 10% are return volunteers who help out six to 12 times a year.
And to ensure the Food Bank has the greatest impact it can, Traore makes sure programs within the initiative target different segments of the population. While its Feed More program provides food to more than 200 emergency nonprofit organizations daily, its Kids Café and KidzPack offer weekday dinners and weekend meals to thousands of poverty-stricken children each week. Twilight Harvest distributes a two-week supply of groceries to seniors each month; Operation Frontline teaches families how to make food choices that are both affordable and healthy as well as a financial literacy component that teaches budgeting; and Produce For Health provides economically disadvantaged neighborhoods with 50,000 pounds of fresh produce per month.
Traore also makes sure to keep the family tradition alive along with her husband, Brehima. The couple’s 10-year-old son, Dean, recently spent his summer vacation packing food boxes as a volunteer for the organization. “I like to volunteer because I have everything I need, but I know there are other people who don’t have much and I should always help them,” says Dean. While Dean’s work made his mother proud, the Food Bank’s day-to-day progress is what keeps a smile on her face. She adds, “When I see trucks being loaded with food and going out into those communities, I know some family in the community is going to be fed tonight.”