Leslie Gordon’s passion for food justice stems all the way back to her grandfather, Norman Goldberg, who grew up without much, but always gave when he could. His legacy of generosity made him well known in the community and created a continued legacy of generosity throughout his family, including Gordon’s mother who became the head of the world’s largest wholesale produce terminal located in Hunts Point. Gordon later became president of Food Bank for New York City.
Gordon started her tenure as president of Food Bank for NYC back in March of 2020, during the height of the pandemic. However, with previous leadership positions at City Harvest and Feeding Westchester Food Bank, Gordon proved running a food bank would not be the challenge.
New York Nonprofit Media sat down with Gordon to speak about her passion for solving food insecurity, the challenges she faced running a food bank during COVID-19 and how she overcame those challenges while building trust and relationships in the organization.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me how your passion for anti-hunger initiatives and solving food insecurity came about?
My passion for serving New Yorkers and people in general who are food insecure goes back generations in my family, and so, I carry on my family legacy in the work that I do to help New Yorkers every single day. My grandfather, Norman Goldberg, was a youngster in Rockland County in the early 1900s. His parents were European immigrants, and he grew up without running water, indoor plumbing and at times, the only thing that he had to consume during the day was an apple that he might have picked off a neighboring farmer’s tree. Now fast forward: He had an opportunity to be somewhat philanthropic in his later years. He was famous for being an avid backyard gardener and giving whatever excess came out of that garden to neighbors on their stoops, because he understood what it was like to be hungry. He would also take, very quietly, calls from the local synagogue. The rabbi at the local synagogue would get a list of names of people who in the community didn't have enough to eat and my grandfather would go to a grocery store, stock up on all the items from the list and then enter a fourth floor walk-up apartment building to drop the groceries and go (because you wanted to preserve the dignity of those that you were helping). That fuels my drive to feed people and to help people. Fast forward again: My mother had the honor and pleasure of running the world's largest wholesale produce terminal, a fabulous place. It sits in a deep part of the South Bronx and the Hunts Point neighborhood. I got addicted, I guess you would say, to the magic of operations and how food moves through our food system. It's a little bit of a happy accident, you might say, that I landed in food. You might say that I landed in food banking because it's not necessarily something I targeted specifically to do. And so I've now been in the food banking space for about 20 years. This is my third New York state food bank. It is my honor and pleasure to lead the Food Bank for New York City. I also chair the New York State Food Bank Association.
What experiences prior to your time at Food Bank NYC allowed you to grow as a leader and become prepared to take on COVID-19?
I've had the pleasure of being in and out of the nonprofit space for most of my professional career, with the exception of a small stint at one of the nation's largest commodity trading firms and working to help kids in the United States with General Colin Powell, among some others. You might say, I cut my teeth on different parts of the nonprofit business. I've been on the fundraising side. I've been on the marketing and public relations side, the programs side and the data analytics side. What you might call a full holistic skill set on how to actually run a nonprofit and apart from that, of course, it's just who you inherently are, as a leader. Thankfully, I had some wonderful role models and mentors along the way in my early years. Then there's just sort of who I am and role models in my family and in social and friend groups. I would speak as objectively as one can describe myself as a compassionate strategic collaborative leader. I believe that genuinely supporting people to be their best while they're with us is our number one job. I've now been at three different food banks. I had the pleasure of being at City harvest. I had the pleasure of leading what's now called Feeding Westchester, and now I'm back in the city, helping New Yorkers across the five boroughs get food for today. But very frankly, and importantly, helping them to move along what I call a continuum of self-sufficiency and financial empowerment. That way, they no longer find themselves on a food pantry line or a soup kitchen line permanently.
What was it like working through the pandemic? What was challenging about that situation and how did you overcome that?
If I was smart enough to have kept a journal during the time of the pandemic, I think I would probably have made for a wonderful academic case study presentation or ultimately just an interesting book for our future not-for-profit leaders and maybe some of my wonderful colleagues across the United States today who lead good organizations. I landed at Food Bank for New York City on March 30th 2020, just after the city went into official lockdown. It was a tough time, admittedly, for a minute when COVID happened and actually started in Westchester County where I was then leading a food bank. It was hard to know: Do I go backwards or do I go forward? What do I do? It was the hardest time I've had in my entire career, not to be understated. We were on a parallel path and doing two things at once, one was rising incrementally to meet the historically high need in New York City. We help people every day but we also help New Yorkers in crisis. You know, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, apartment building fires, whatever comes up. And, of course, we were at the epicenter of serving people during COVID-19. On the other side of the parallel path was being a new leader, not known to staff who had been at the organization. Working hard to reorganize the organization, build talent, build systems, build technology, build relationships. But the number one priority of mine in that moment was building trust and building relationships with the staff within the organization at a very hard time. It's people first. If we can't get it right with our people who are working diligently and passionately every single day, then we're not getting it. It was a tough time. We needed more food. Costs were rising and the need was everywhere. We ran nearly 24 hours a day. Our warehouse was open. People were tired. People were scared. We had people on staff who are no longer with us on this Earth. We had people on our staff who lost both parents to the COVID-19 pandemic. My job during that time was part coach, part therapist, part friend, part colleague, part strategic leader.
How do we as a society ensure take a proactive approach to food insecurity versus a reactionary one?
Luckily we have some 200 food banks across the United States who've been at this work for decades and they're made to do this work. We invest millions of dollars, tens of millions, really hundreds of millions, collectively across the United States to do this. We've learned a lot over the time that we've been a food bank. Our organization celebrated our 40th anniversary this year. Over that time we've learned a lot about how we distribute food efficiently and effectively, with an eye towards equity and dignity and need on the ground. So there's a lot of sophistication behind the scenes that actually goes on to get an apple into the hands of a person or a chicken into their hands. It's got to go to the right place at the right time using the right types of food. Because if it's not nutritious, people won't eat it. There's a lot going on and we're learning a lot in real time. Then most importantly, you can't food bank your way out of this problem. Food banks are only focused on food for today. Organizations like mine and others across the United States and the social services sector increasingly focus on more permanent solutions, system changes and policy changes that impact people's lives for the long term. At Food Bank for New York City, we've been working on that side, or the root causality of the problem, for years and we're investing more in that. Now we work with health care institutions like NYU Langone and Montefiore. People might be surprised we work with Memorial Sloan Kettering on making sure that people who struggle with diet related diseases or chronic diseases in general have access to food where and when they need it so that they can live a healthy life. We interestingly recognize that cash is one of the biggest things that changes lives for people. That’s why we are the nation's largest tax preparation organization outside the U.S. military, which likely comes as a surprise to people. The next couple weeks we'll have helped to file our 20,000 tax return for just this tax year, and that helps return nearly $30 million cash into the pockets of New Yorkers and gives them back the dignity to spend it. They'll typically tell us they spend it on rent, utilities, food and household items. That makes all the difference in the world, but we're also working on the long-term changes that are so necessary. Lots of folks don't have equal access to the resources they need to be able to thrive and live their best life, and so we're dialing in to help make those changes to help educate people.
What are you excited for in your role moving forward?
I'm excited about the incremental growth and progress we’re making on our ability to send out higher levels of food across New York City than we did pre-pandemic. We've grown pretty considerably with the generosity of our donors across different sectors since then. And that's a pretty big deal. I'm more excited in some ways about all the good work that we're going to do beyond food. We call it food plus. There may be some opportunities to help train people for specific skilled jobs because we're experts in operation. We're experts in how to drive a truck and do inventory management. We need good people in that area. There's a possibility that we could potentially train them to help ourselves and help other people who look for skilled folks to fill those good-paying jobs. We'll continue to help return cash back to people in higher amounts on the tax side. We're really working to stop this cycle of generational poverty.
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