Jeff Thomas’ first memories of the food bank are a little different than most. As the son of the late John Arnold, who ran the food bank from 1989 – 2011, Jeff recalls the shag carpet that insulated the wall of his dad’s first office, watching Monty Python on a VCR at the food bank while his dad worked weekends, and, in elementary school, helping label cans as a reclamation volunteer.
Growing up with a food bank executive director as a father was certainly never boring.
“My dad was the sort of person who could and would give my friends’ parents a spontaneous hour-long keynote presentation about whatever was at the top of his mind in the charitable food arena,” Jeff said. “Fortunately, he was a really good storyteller, so people mostly went with it!”
As Jeff grew older, he began helping the food bank respond to challenges he heard about from his father, sometimes learning new skills just to fill a need. The summer before eighth grade, he heard his dad wishing for a current directory of the food banks in the Feeding America national network (then called America’s Second Harvest), so he dedicated a chunk of his summer to flipping through a stack of phone books and contacting food banks for the most up-to-date info. His efforts resulted in a national food bank directory as well as a map, which he was honored to see that one Feeding America staff member still had tacked up in their cubicle when he visited the network office in Chicago a decade later!
As a high schooler, Jeff applied his TV-class videography skills to shooting and editing a video explaining the newly developed Mobile Pantry program. The video was distributed nationwide on DVD and helped other food banks begin their own Mobile Pantry program. Jeff then learned to build websites specifically so he could improve the food bank’s. He went on to spend two summers working closely with his father as an intern.
In 2009, John and Jeff started a new nonprofit: Nonprofit Innovations Inc./End Hunger in America, which is dedicated to improving the practice of hunger relief in the United States. At the heart of their work are the findings of the Waste Not Want Not study that the food bank conducted with Michigan State University Extension from 1994 to 1996. At the time, the study’s identification of client choice as essential to ending hunger was seen as radical, but today, choice pantries are increasingly common across the country. This is a change Jeff believes his father’s efforts played a major part in — efforts he strives to continue.
Like his father, Jeff believes food banks are capable of ending hunger in its literal sense: ensuring that everyone who experiences a time of need has access to timely, adequate and appropriate food assistance.
“To get there, the best practices identified by the Waste Not Want Not project are as relevant today as when they were first written down,” Jeff explained.
In addition to advocating for hunger-relief best practices, Jeff is involved on the front lines as well. His nonprofit hosts Mobile Pantries, and during the pandemic has delivered food directly to neighbors’ homes. When he’s not fighting hunger, Jeff keeps busy building websites, serving on the boards of other organizations and caring for his two-year-old son.
When asked what part of his work John would be most proud of, he laughed:
“I don’t want to put words in his mouth in a professional sense, but I think my dad would be pretty excited about his grandson right now!”