The Capital Area Food Bank was founded on January 15, 1980, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
But a vital point in its origin can be traced a few years earlier to a future AU professor’s Yom Kippur fast.
During his third year at the University of Missouri–Kansas City law school, Richard Stack, now a professor in AU’s School of Communication, was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
“The turning point for me towards the end of law school was a Yom Kippur fast, in which I was trying hard to pay attention to the rabbi but I was so hungry it was hard to do that,” Stack recalled. “Here I am studying the law of the land in the bread basket of the country, but it began to occur to me to ask why do some of us eat so well on the planet and others don’t. So I used my law school thesis to focus on that, to take a look at the legal, political, economic ramifications of food distribution. And that really propelled my journey.”
Stack ended up in Washington working for the World Hunger Education Service. Unfortunately, funding for his position dried up and he found himself unemployed.
About then two D.C.-area groups, the United Planning Commission and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, were considering starting a food bank. By then Stack had begun associating with the interfaith group and had become an active member of the discussion.
“I became the point person for the group. Everybody else had jobs — I didn’t. I did the research, I did the legwork, I studied the other models, came back and reported to the group, and basically I was the natural person to take the lead role when the grant proposals that I was writing started to be funded . . . So after a year of basically working in a voluntary capacity, I graduated to being the executive director.”
And so the Capital Area Food Bank was founded in what Stack called a “very funky” warehouse on Bladensburg Road in D.C.
“We started in a leaky warehouse, no pallet jacks, no forklifts, unloading trucks by hand. It was by the grit of our teeth that we began,” recalled Lynn Brantley, president and CEO of the CAFB, who was then on Stack’s staff.
In the beginning the food bank distributed a million pounds of food in one year to 90 agencies.
These days, it distributes 30 million pounds to 700 agencies.
The move into CAFB’s current building on Taylor Street, Northeast, Stack considers the crowning achievement of his tenure as executive director. And it was while at the food bank that he taught his first class at AU—a class called the Politics of Hunger. After leaving CAFB, Stack became the first chair of the DC Central Kitchen, which uses leftovers to feed thousands of folks while providing programs such as culinary training for the needy.
Just as vital to the food bank’s founding was Barry Scher, SPA ’65.
The longtime Giant Food VP, now a principal with Policy Solutions in D.C., joined the food bank in 1980 as a board member. He became vice chair three years ago, and before that was chair of the board for 10 straight years.
“Barry’s the undergirding, the heart of this place,” Brantley said. “He’s always willing to jump in, always willing to help. And because of who he is he has such credibility. He started the Good Neighbor Campaign with Don Graham at the Washington Post; he opened the door for that.”
That campaign, which invited grocery customers to contribute food to the food bank, along with a donation coupon, raised about 300,000 pounds of food the first year. And the coupons allowed the food bank to build a direct-mail campaign. “We put the names into our database and now we’ve raised over $3 million just through our direct-mail campaigns. Barry Scher and Donald Graham are responsible for that.”
“He and Giant were the guardian angels of the program,” said Stack. “Safeway was very generous also, but Giant provided probably more food, more transportation support, people power, financing, funding, and Barry’s expertise in the local food industry. Sometimes people wouldn’t return my call as the director of the food bank, but they always returned Barry’s call.”
Other grocers have supported the food bank too, and Safeway’s Larry Johnson was one of the important supporters of the food bank during its founding. Indeed, the current chair, Greg TenEyck, is director of public affairs and government relations at Safeway. Dan Marett, a VP at Harris Teeter, is also a current board member.
As the food bank prepares to enter a new era, the institution remains a legacy of the vision of people like Scher and Stack and Brantley — and the staff and thousands of volunteers who have made the CAFB a vital source of food for people who would otherwise go hungry.