Southwest Regional Food Bank Conference

An Education in Fighting Hunger

Members of the NTFB External Affairs team at the Southwest Regional Food Bank conference. L-R: Marcus Baker, Valerie Hawthorne, Zahra Perez, Danielle Pestel and Cody Meyers.

I have always been a big fan of conferences. Ever since my first church camp experience to now, 20 something years later, I absolutely love a good conference. I love the energy of being surrounded by like-minded people, learning and sharing best practices and meeting new people who share the same victories and struggles. Everything I love about a good conference – our friends at the Houston Food Bank (HFB) delivered at the Southwest Regional Food Bank conference held just a few weeks ago. Included below are my personal takeaways – and as a new Food Bank employee, I know these findings will help shape my work and outlook moving forward. I recently joined the NTFB External Affairs team and serve as a Major Gift Officer.

Hunger is a REAL problem

When we first arrived at the conference, our team was offered a tour of the Houston Food Bank. A classic move in the industry to help show the scale and scope of the work. Admittedly, before I began working at the North Texas Food Bank, my understanding of the work that happened at a food bank were unclear, and only involved what I assumed was a giant canned food drive with a handful of volunteers looking for expired Chef Boyardee cans. Now I know about the enormous scope of logistical and social work that these entities undertake, and the HFB was no exception. The Houston Food Bank is the largest food bank in the United States, currently resides in an old Sysco Foods manufacturing facility in East Houston and serves 18 counties with more than 1.1 million people who are identified as food-insecure. Just like my first tour at the North Texas Food Bank, I was blown away by the sheer size of the building, yet also perplexed by rooms filled with automated assembly lines. Then a familiar feeling hit me – the overwhelming and sobering thought that all of this is even necessary. HFB is one of 21 food banks in Texas, and is eagerly trying to eradicate food insecurity. Just like the North Texas Food Bank, our friends in Houston rely on corporate partners, government aid and community support to serve all our hungry neighbors around the state. Hunger is a real problem faced by too many. After our tour, my fire was lit even brighter to learn my role in how to end it.

We are all in this TOGETHER

Since joining the NTFB team, one thing has become clear – my understanding of the world is very limited. The factors that contribute to food insecurity, and the tough choices our hungry neighbors must make are all so complex that at times, it is difficult to comprehend if there will ever be a future without hunger. From farm bills to SNAP benefits paperwork, to canned food drives and supply chain logistics, there is an infinite amount of information to learn and comprehend before tackling the real issue of hunger. But here’s what I know – I have found great comfort in realizing that we are not alone in trying to solve it. The conference hosted more than 75 hunger fighters from food banks all over the Southwest region. We were given time away from breakouts and plenary sessions to talk to our counterparts from around the state, and the wealth of knowledge held by other veteran Food Bank fundraisers was welcomed. We spent the better part of two hours talking about retention strategies, corporate opportunities and big asks. I look forward to sharing a handful of reports that highlight key insights around us finding the right partners to ensure we close the hunger gap in North Texas.

We must be AUTHENTIC in our approach

Our final keynote session before we made the trek back to Dallas stuck with me. Dr. Todd Dewett, a leadership and organizational behavior expert, spoke on the value on leading and working with authenticity. With sleeves of tattoos on both arms, Dr. Dewett was unapologetically himself, and shared the value of not losing yourself to you work. How can we do that as food bankers? How do we authentically tell our personal story, and the story of those we serve, to build relationships? With each thought another question would follow, and eventually I had my A-HA conference moment. The need to solve the hunger crisis is real and ever present, and yes I know that we are all in this together, it really will take all of us to come to the table as our authentic selves to find an answer. The communities we serve across the state are diverse. The face of hunger looks like you, like me, like a childhood friend, or a stranger – why then wouldn’t those who work to close the gap be just as diverse as those we serve? Our hungry neighbors need, and more importantly, deserve the authentic version of myself and all of us at work. As with all teams, we must sharpen each other and learn from those around us. There are parts of me as a person and as a fundraiser that are unique, and to best serve our neighbors in need, I should embrace those parts rather than try to fit into the typical fundraiser box.

I want to give a huge shout out to the Houston Food Bank for a fantastic conference. I know I speak for all of us at the North Texas Food Bank when I say we learned so much, and are looking forward to the progress we will make with all of the information we gained over the past two days. As I enter month two at NTFB, I know I am leaving the conference even more eager to work toward closing the hunger gap in North Texas.

To learn how you can join me in this important work, visit