Farm boy from Michigan's Upper Peninsula drives big city food bank
DETROIT — Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan President and CEO Gerry Brisson grew up on a farm in the far western reaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where his parents instilled in him a life-long drive to help people.
"My dad was a military guy and my mom was a teacher and they were very service-oriented," said Brisson. "They preached to us kids growing up that you don't live your life just for yourself, you have to live it for others."
Brisson gained further inspiration from a very active parish priest. The father made such an impression on him that he packed his bags and left the Keweenaw Peninsula for the big city, moving a world away from his rural roots to Detroit, thinking he'd become a Capuchin priest.
"I'm married now and have four kids, so pieces of that plan didn't work as originally intended," added Brisson. "I worked for the Capuchins for seven years as their chief fundraiser for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, one of the founding agencies of Gleaners."
Brisson got to know Gleaners through his work at the soup kitchen and says he was always attracted to the food bank's systematic approach to tackling hunger. Gleaners came calling in 2006 and hired Gerry. In 2014, he became president and CEO.
Gleaners Community Food Bank opened in 1977 near the soup kitchen on Detroit's eastside. It was one of the first food banks in the country, created to gather surplus food, store it and distribute it to hunger-relief organizations in southeast Michigan. Today, Gleaners operates five distribution centers that provide food to 528 partner soup kitchens, pantries, shelters and other nonprofits throughout southeast Michigan. In 2018, Gleaners delivered some 44 million pounds of food. On average, Gleaners provides 96,000 meals each day.
Gleaners was named the 2019 Food Bank of the Year by Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S. In addition, Brisson is the recipient of the 2019 Eleanor Josaitis Unsung Hero Award, which recognizes people who have made significant contributions to Metro Detroit. The award is part of the annual Shining Light Awards, presented by the Detroit Free Press and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition.
The mission of Gleaners is to address hunger in southeast Michigan. Are you making progress?
"We've never solved the problem of food insecurity. In the last five years, we've grown from 34 to 44 million pounds of food distributed and that's at a time when the economy is doing better. Yes, there are fewer people that need help today than 5 years ago, but we're only about 60% of the way to solving the problem. A lot of growth is still needed to get to a fully food secure community and that's our goal. To have a safety net that works for everyone."
How important is support from Ford and other corporate partners?
"It's hugely important. We have a really close relationship with Ford Fund. Ford encourages innovation. They are results oriented. Ford is one of our top two supporters every year. The Ford Resource and Engagement Centers were one of our first attempts to systematize a place where people can get more than one type of service to see if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We've had some huge successes through these centers supporting households while they work to overcome any barriers. So, how do these corporate partnerships create better outcomes for the community? Innovation is going to be critical. You're going to have to do new things and we have that broken down into five buckets: meet people where they are, foster innovation, partner for greater impact, optimize people power, including the people getting help and scale up solutions that work. That's our five-point plan. What we think has to happen."
What does success look like to you?
"Success to us is helping as many people as we can with the resources we have, to help them thrive and move on to success in their life. That's what success is. We have to meet a certain amount of deliveries, we have to get a certain amount of food, we've got to do a certain amount of fundraising and all of that comes together so the community has what it needs to be successful. That's what success looks like for us. My amazing team does the work and one of the most important parts of success is making sure my team knows they're appreciated, that they're supported in what they need to do their work and that we're all going in the same direction together. The biggest successes for me is enabling my team to do what they do. That's hugely important. They do what they do because the community needs them. It doesn't take half a second before they are talking about people who need help."
In all your years working with nonprofits, does any one story or person stand out?
"A lot of the foundational experiences that kept me in this work really happened with the Capuchins. I worked at the soup kitchen and I would have lunch with people as they came in. I had the opportunity to hear a lot of really compelling stories from people who were at a place in their life where they were actually in line at the soup kitchen. I'll never forget meeting this one person. She had been a telephone operator for over 20 years and then she was diagnosed with throat cancer. She survived the throat cancer, but it was very expensive. Her job didn't cover all of the costs and hundreds of thousands of dollars were incurred so she could survive, and she went bankrupt. Besides that, she couldn't use her skills anymore because the throat cancer prevented her from talking clearly on the phone. Here was someone who has worked her whole life and done so many things right, and then gets hit by something that could happen to anyone and her life went upside down. She didn't have a support system in place or family close by and she ended up losing everything. She received government help and went to the soup kitchen and she did what she needed to survive. But to really get ahead, it's going to be a heck of path for her. That's a pretty moving story and that's just one of many, many examples. When I started listening to people and hearing what they've been through, the broken relationships, single moms with nothing trying to put their lives back together. When they need a little help, let's get it to them right now and get them to their next success. Let's not leave them down in the dumps. This is what keeps me coming to work every day."
Looking forward, what are the biggest challenges ahead?
"We're just not where we need to be yet. The problem is still bigger than the solutions, so you need everything – money, ideas, smart people, new investors, and everything managed tight. Efficiency and innovation are mortal enemies. The answer to the question is how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Let me say that one of the things we are most grateful for is the number of individuals who step up and either give or volunteer. We get 50,000 volunteers a year and that's an awful lot of people saying I can't spend my life at this, but I can spend a handful of my life helping people that need me. The energy that comes from all those volunteers is worth 60 full time staff. That's absolutely huge. And then you look at the number of people who give, that's another 50,000 individuals and they don't always overlap. We could not do this work without the volunteers and the contributors."
What will it take to finally solve hunger?
"It's certainly going to take time. This is an intractable problem and we can't say for sure we have an answer. There are about 650,000 food insecure people in southeast Michigan, so you can't just deal with one person at a time. You have to think about the system. People needing help is cyclical. It's not the same people needing help every month, people go in and out of what they can manage on their own. The way we're going to solve the problem is to actively participate with people who win when the problem is solved, and figure out what their investment should be in the solution. Education is a good example. We know if we want kids to read at a third grade level by third grade, which is one of the key indicators of high school graduation, you're not going to get there if you don't address food insecurity among young children. You can't have a food secure child in a food insecure household. So, how do we understand that from a different point of view? You bring people to the table who know they have to make an investment in this to reach their goals. You solve food insecurity for those populations and you go one thing at a time."
For more information on Gleaners Community Food Bank visit https://www.gcfb.org.