When the pandemic hit in March 2020, food pantries across the country had to quickly adapt to the crisis to serve a historic number of people seeking food assistance.
Lakeview Pantry was fortunate to have Bill Thomas, then chief operating officer, making many tough decisions on the fly. Thomas, who previously worked as chief supply chain officer for Feeding America, didn’t mind the many logistical challenges that seemed to crop up daily. In fact, he rather enjoyed them.
“I had a blast, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Thomas, who left Feeding America in 2018 to have a more local impact in Chicago.
For months, Thomas helped orchestrate a massive food distribution out of historic Wrigley Field, serving thousands of people affected by the pandemic.
“Bill really helped us to quickly scale up and meet the moment early in the pandemic,” CEO Kellie O’Connell said. “And more generally, his leadership and can-do spirit has empowered us to grow and evolve to serve more people. We’re just very thankful for all that he’s done.”
This Friday, Thomas, 65, is retiring after an impressive career spanning more than four decades in the food industry and nonprofit sector. The son of a food process engineer, Thomas began his career at Quaker Oats and Barilla before going on to join the leadership team at Feeding America, the national network of food banks.
Under his leadership, the Feeding America team more than doubled the amount of donated food — from about 2 billion pounds to about 5 billion pounds, said Nancy Curby, executive vice president of enterprise effectiveness. He also pioneered new donation programs and technology platforms.
“Our deep disappointment when Bill left Feeding America was only tempered by the fact that he was staying within the broader hunger relief community and bringing his considerable talents to Lakeview Pantry,” Curby said. “We are simply in awe of what he’s helped build there, particularly during some challenging times.”
In November 2020, he inched closer to retirement when he stepped down from his role of chief operating officer to be a senior adviser for the Pantry.
And though he’s retiring now, Thomas expects to stay plenty active. He plays basketball and tennis; he and his wife, Mary, also recently joined a bowling league. He hopes to spend more time with his children and grandchildren. And he’ll continue to volunteer to give back to the community, an important part of his Christian faith.
In a recent interview, Thomas offered some reflections on his career, a changing food industry and his time at Lakeview Pantry during the pandemic. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What attracted you to the food industry as a young man?
A. I wanted to work in some kind of management capacity. My first job was at the Quaker Oats company. I worked there for 19 years. I kind of never got away from food.
And I always thought that the food industry would be a good place to be. Food’s never going to be obsolete, so I was always going to be ensured of employment.
Q. The food industry has changed so much over the course of your career with consolidation of food companies and changing consumer tastes. Is that part of what inspired your move to Feeding America?
A. Not necessarily. I made the decision to get into nonprofits because I wanted to give back. I was somewhere in my early 50s and I had done well. I wanted to work for a nonprofit and work for something more than just a paycheck.
I’ve always been of the mindset of the opportunity to give to others. I support a number of charities and causes financially and by volunteering. It’s really about our faith. That’s something that is important to us.
Q. How did your work at Quaker and Barilla inform what you did at Feeding America?
A. I was pretty much what I would call the front end of the supply chain. I did a lot of production planning, scheduling production and also purchasing. At Quaker, I had five years in marketing as well. It helped me understand how food is made, distributed and purchased.
(At Feeding America) I worked with food donors who had excess food. I understood how things were done, when products got close to expiration, when they’re available and the decisions that food companies have to make to get something out of food that is getting closer to expiration.
In 2009, we started the major program with the retailers to start donation programs with them. There really isn’t any other option for them other than working with the charitable food system because you have to move the food so quickly. That was a great win-win for them and for the food banks.
Q. How did food sourcing change during your time at Feeding America?
A. When I first started there, our major sources of food were manufacturers and third-party warehouses. And it was all shelf-stable. However, many of them eventually found ways to sell the product instead of donating it. That led us to sourcing food from grocery retailers.
Food gets thrown away at grocery stores every day. If there was just a way to figure out how to get it from the grocery stores to the food banks or the food pantries — that’s where we came up with the idea of having organizations pick up and make it easy for the grocery stores. The issue was a lot of food banks and food pantries didn’t have vehicles. We worked with (retail) donors to donate vehicles.
By the time I left in 2018, the network was distributing about 5 billion pounds total and about 3 billion pounds was retail. In the pandemic, the total got up to about 7 or 8 billion and I know a lot of it is coming from the retailers.
Q. And the push toward having more retailers donate food also increased the supply of fresh produce going to food banks and pantries, right?
A. Absolutely. That’s probably the number one item that gets donated because of the limited shelf life. If you go out on a van run with one of the drivers, you’ll see what gets donated the most. Probably 60 or 70 percent is fresh produce. Now, we have to go through it and glean it because it’s at the end of the supply chain.
Toward the end (of my time at Feeding America), the last two or three years, we worked with another channel, which was quick-service restaurants, places like Starbucks. When we get Starbucks — because the Greater Chicago Food Depository gets it and drops it off here — the access to Starbucks food for our clients is second to none. People love it.
Q. Is your “problem solver” mentality something you inherited from your dad, who was a food process engineer?
A. I think so. Personally, I’m not a handyman. But I am a problem solver. Even in my last few weeks, I’m still pushing hard to get things done. One of my last projects was to get our new freezer installed and up and running at our new location opening later this spring.
Q. What prompted you to leave Feeding America and join Lakeview Pantry?
A. I knew I was getting closer to retirement age. It’s great to see programs started at the national level because of scope and scale. But I wanted to see the impact on the local level. I had volunteered at Lakeview Pantry and knew who they were. And it just happened to be that when I was ready to step away from the national stage that the local stage became open. I heard (Lakeview Pantry CEO Kellie O’Connell) was trying to put together a number two position, which was at the time, chief operating officer. We were going to do an expansion. It turned out to be a good match for what we were both looking for.
Q. What was driving you to have more of a local impact at that point in your career?
A. To actually be able to see and touch and talk to people who received food. To talk to donors who are interested in donating. To basically be the boots on the ground. It’s been great.
It’s not always been easy but you look back on it and you think, wow, we were able to bring in these donors, we set up these locations and we have all these wonderful people who came to work for Lakeview Pantry.
When I started we were at 18 (full-time employees). We’re going to have 50 by the time I leave. We were raising about $2 million when I started. We raised $7 million last year. We were distributing a little under 2 million pounds; last year, we did 5 million. Everything kind of went up. The pandemic definitely made our numbers bigger, but we were staged and ready for that to happen.
Q. So you come to work for Lakeview Pantry, and then shortly thereafter, a pandemic hits. What was that like?
A. It was a crazy time but I loved it because it didn’t matter what they were doing — everybody pitched in and just wanted to help.
When we moved to Wrigley, we moved there and opened it up in just a week or two. We figured it out. We put a production line in, we used their coolers and freezers. We had so many people who came and volunteered because they thought it was cool we were working at Wrigley. And quite frankly, there were a lot of people who didn’t have jobs at that point in time and they wanted to do something with their time. People just wanted to help.
Q. So these resources became available at Wrigley Field of all places, during the height of the pandemic, and it was your responsibility to figure out how to make it all work?
A. Yeah it was. I rented a freezer because we didn’t have enough. All these things that you normally don’t think about. We rented those portable storage sheds, eight of them, and put dry goods in them outside of Wrigley because we just didn’t have enough room. I look back on it and I don’t know how we did it.
Q. What has this work meant to you? What are you most proud of?
A. I think I’m most proud of what the organization has done and how it’s grown and how it’s changed. The vision that we had three-plus years ago has come to fruition. And just seeing the pride that people have in the organization.
Everybody has their personal stamp on it and there’s a lot of pride in what’s been accomplished — whether you’ve raised money, brought in new volunteers, hustled food around or served clients.
People love the impact that it’s made. That’s been the blessing that I’ve gotten.
Q. What will you miss most?
A. The answer is always the people, right? But I think that’s true. I’ve made a lot of friends. And not that I’m going away but it’s just going to be different, right? It’s definitely the people. Whether you’re a volunteer, whether you’re on staff. I’ve gotten to know some clients, too. That’s what I’ll miss. The daily interaction with what’s going on in people’s lives.
Q. Any advice you would dispense to your colleagues on your way out?
A. Good ideas can be generated from anywhere. And I’ve seen it — definitely in the pandemic. They came from everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be a top-down thing. Talk about things that are on your mind. I’ve seen people do it and it’s become institutionalized. People are proud of that. You never know, you never know. So don’t be quiet.