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The business of hunger Featured

6:47am EDT May 25, 2004

For six years, Robert H. Forney was president and CEO of the Chicago Stock Exchange.

He still carries those titles, but in a different capacity. Forney now leads America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest charitable domestic hunger relief organization.

When he took over leadership at the Chicago Stock Exchange, Forney also began volunteering at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, packing food. He eventually became a board member.

"I used it as an opportunity to build the right kind of spirit at the exchange with my management team, with our members," Forney says. "I became increasingly aware of not only poverty in Chicago's urban areas, but also the opportunities to do some serious things to alleviate some of the pain.

"When I left the exchange after six years, I thought about retiring, and before I could really spend a whole lot of time on that line of thought, my wife decided that she was too young to have me around the house," he says. "Along came the opportunity to be CEO of America's Second Harvest. I have to say it was really everything I was looking for. I wanted to do something that had some social value.

"My dream wish was to be involved in something that had the look and feel of a very large, complicated business."

America's Second Harvest is a national network of more than 200 regional food banks and food rescue organizations that provide more than 2 billion pounds of food and grocery products to 50,000 local charitable agencies. These agencies operate more than 94,000 food programs, including food pantries, soup kitchens, women's shelters, Kids Cafes, Community Kitchens and other organizations that provide emergency food assistance to more than 23 million hungry Americans each year.

Smart Business spoke with Forney about how leading the stock exchange and leading the food program are not really all that different.

 

Are there any similarities between the Chicago Stock Exchange and America's Second Harvest?

 

I found that I really like working in a membership environment. I also think I have some skills in management approaches that are particularly well-suited for that environment. I don't think everybody is. When this opportunity came along here, I was able to transfer a whole lot of things that I developed over that six-year period into practice here.

They both have earned Baldridge Awards for best managed and most productive -- in our case, the use of diesel fuel; in their case (the exchange), computers. We use computers here, too, but the biggest element of expense we have here is transportation.

If we just equated the amount of money that, collectively, our network spends on transportation, we'd rank somewhere in the top 50 logistics organizations in the country. If we just counted the number of meals that Kids Cafes (provide) every day, we'd rank in the top 15 restaurant chains in America.

 

What role do you play as CEO of America's Second Harvest?

 

I am actually the advocate, the voice, for 35 million hungry Americans. Because of our size, because we're in every community, hopefully, we're the most effective voice. They need to be heard, and that's part of my job.

The other part is to run a very large business. I've got to be able to find food. It doesn't all come in the form of off-the-shelf boxes of frozen or canned or bottled or jarred bags of finished product. We have to figure out how to get fish off the decks of commercial fishing ships and then get it processed into various kinds of products -- we'll turn salmon that would otherwise be thrown away into salmon that can be utilized by kids in Brooklyn to fight obesity and bad diets.

 

How large is the hunger problem in this country?

 

We talk about the 13 million children and how many meals you want to give them a day. Three sound OK? That's 39 million meals a day. Start making that pasta, don't forget the salad, the drinks and the veggies that go along with it. It is a staggering amount of food.

When people think about 2 billion pounds, it's very, very difficult to get your hands around that. I describe it sometimes as a convoy of semis going down the road in military form. That convoy is between 8,000 and 9,000 miles long, and always on the move. We're dealing with 8 million to 9 million pounds on average, per day.

 

What are the challenges of getting food to hungry Americans?

 

There are more apples left on trees in the state of Washington than would be needed to put an apple in front of every kid in America, every hungry child -- the 13 million of them that are out there -- certainly once a week, year round. We have to create ways of getting those apples off those trees.

There will always be places and times where there will be a deficit (of food) and places and times where there will be a surplus. Being responsible for the entire country, our job is to find that stuff wherever it is, and then, in a balanced, fair, equitable and consistent way, get that food to as close to that source as we can to people who need it.

It's not easy to do just what I said. Unless you can create some pretty ingenious ways, fish from the deck of hundreds of fishing boats, it will not get to kids in Brooklyn. That's an expensive, complicated difficult process.

 

But you've found a way?

 

Kraft was interested in helping with that. They helped provide some capital investments that will make fish processing facilities a little more productive. As a byproduct of that, that fish processing facility will get from us X million pounds of fish, which they will then process for us at no charge. We'll figure out how to get the freezer storage capacity that we need, hopefully at no charge.

Then, eventually, we have to figure out how to get a truck from Seattle to Brooklyn. That is a very strong suit of our organization. We have a fleet of almost 800 trucks. On top of that, we rely a lot on the good folks in the trucking industry, individual truck drivers, retired truck drivers, people that have an empty load coming back, that will move things for us all over the country.

 

What are your goals for the rest of the decade?

 

I've got a commitment to the board (focusing on) three deliverables by 2010. One of them is to reduce the at-risk hunger population in America by half by 2010.

Another of my deliverables is to find 900 million additional pounds of food (a year) -- roughly 3 billion (total). The third one is to create a movement, to inspire the nation to not only help us do this, but to work with the grass-roots, faith-based components, as well the government at all levels - city, county, state, and the most important, federal.

Along the way, I've got to dramatically improve our productivity. We've got to get (productivity) 35 to 50 percent better. We've got to come close to moving twice as much food for the same dollar. There are opportunities for us to do this. How to reach: America's Second Harvest, (312) 263-2303 or www.secondharvest.org