Food security

Second Harvest’s top executive reacts to the pandemic and dreams of a stigma-free society.
0421 Execprofile Issue 1

With all the tenacity of a wolverine, Michigan native Michelle Orge is fighting back against hunger and food insecurities in her relatively young role as president and CEO at Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.

Since first volunteering at an Ann Arbor food bank and working her way up to COO, Orge has spent nearly 20 years involved in food banks and giving back. After four years as the executive director for Community Food Share in Boulder, Colorado, she returned to the Midwest in August 2019 to take the Second Harvest position.

“This job takes more than just being passionate,” she says about her career choice. “You have to be passionate about the work and be strategic and conceptual.”

Flexible also comes to mind.

In a recent conversation, we asked Orge about running a food bank during a pandemic and learned a few other interesting tidbits as well.

What might people not know about Second Harvest?

We’re a clearinghouse for a lot of different food sources. Since 2019, we’ve rescued about 12 million pounds of food per year that might otherwise go to waste. We bring it in, inspect it, manage it, and matchmake it to more than 265 partners and programs across 16 counties. We depend on a network of partners to get that food out to people, so we connect the food resources and they distribute it.

I think of Second Harvest as a gear that turns other smaller gears. As much as possible, we get food out to our partner agencies at no cost or with really low fees. It saves them too. All the gears turn together, affecting people experiencing homelessness or facing health care issues.

What attracted you to this line of work?

I went to the University of Michigan for social science and considered going to law school as a way to make change happen and do good in the world. Then I realized I should try to change my immediate world first because that’s where I could have a larger impact. So, I volunteered at a local food pantry and never really looked back.

How did the pandemic change the operations?

We’re distributing 53% more food than we were pre-COVID. Back then, our food went out to partner agencies by the case. They’d place an order, we’d send it out, and they’d distribute it. People shopped for food at basically no charge in mobile pantries and such. They could choose their food, much like a grocery store. Now, we have to prepack boxes of food — dry boxes, cooler boxes for refrigerated items, produce boxes, and frozen boxes.

We’ve had to expand our staff accordingly because costs have increased and we’re doing this in a socially distanced way. It’s challenging and not optimal and now the interaction isn’t there. Mobile pantries provide access to boxes but not food choices. For us, it’s not the same. People can’t go into the pantries like they used to.

Did COVID put a crimp in programming plans?

We have an opportunity and responsibility to be our best and meet the needs of our community. I always want us to be strategic and proactive, but at a time when things are coming at us like COVID-19, we’ve had to be reactive.

How has the business community helped?

We’ve been humbled by the support of the business community. It’s been tough on them during the pandemic, and many have cut back hours. We were bracing for less business support, but so many have continued to support us.

As a nonprofit, we are a business as well as a consumer of business services. In-kind donations or discounted services or products are valuable donations because they allow us to focus our resources on food for people in need. We have electricians and plumbers, for example, helping us on projects, and a local tech company that provides its services at no charge, which helps us work more efficiently. We are always open to more partnerships like this!

What’s your hope as you look beyond 2021?

I dream of a future where those in need could always know how to get food with no stigma attached. I’d like people not using our services to understand that food insecurity is fluid and to recognize that people move in and out of food insecurity at different times and for different reasons. There’s enough food for everyone. It’s not an argument about hand up or hand out. Everyone should have access to food.

Do you have any interesting hobbies?

I’ve been doing a lot of modern quilting recently. I also make impractical tiny clothes for animals that don’t need them, like bird pants, mouse coats, and squirrel suits [past examples at pillbugdesigns.com]. It’s a ridiculous hobby and I’m not selling any currently, but my job is serious and practical, so it’s a fun diversion.

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