2021 marked not only the food bank’s 40th year, but also Ken Estelle’s 10th anniversary at Feeding America West Michigan. When he became our food bank’s CEO in April 2011, it was his first time working at a nonprofit, let alone leading one. Prior to this role, he had spent 32 years in aerospace and defense. So what made him take this dramatic turn on his career path? It all started because of one Mobile Pantry hosted at a church in Cutlerville, MI.
A change of heart
When asked what inspired him to start volunteering at his church’s Mobile Panty in the ‘90s, Ken shared, “My wife Kathy convinced me to help!” At first, he assumed Mobile Pantries served only neighbors without homes, but soon realized anyone can face hunger.
“When we got there to volunteer, I looked at the people who were waiting in line and thought ‘these people are just like me.’ I could have been sitting there and wouldn’t have been out of place,” he said. “And I thought, ‘this is really weird, how could these people need food?’ That was very eye opening for me.”
Becoming a hunger warrior
After this experience, Ken continued volunteering and donating to the food bank. In 2010, he got a newsletter announcing Executive Director John Arnold’s retirement.
“That’s when I knew that this was the job I was supposed to do,” he said. “I really believed in what John was doing and looked up to him as one of the real innovators and leaders in helping fight hunger. So, I credit John for attracting me to the food bank.”
To this day, Ken still volunteers at his church’s Mobile Pantry alongside his wife. And he even got his CDL-A license so he could drive a Mobile Pantry truck now and then. This enables him to connect with the neighbors we serve, and reminds him of where his journey to becoming a hunger warrior started.
“I really like to interact and talk with the folks who are coming,” he said. “It reminds me why we’re doing what we’re doing. That, to me, makes it all worthwhile.”
For that reason, he encourages staff members to volunteer at a Mobile Pantry at least once per year.
Furthering the mission
“In the corporate world, I mentored many up-and-coming leaders and it was usually always about the career and what do I have to do to get to that next level in the company,” he said. “When I came to the food bank, what I learned is that most of the folks I work with are more concerned about the mission.”
Ken knows how valuable each and every team member is, so one of his proudest accomplishments in the last 10 years is growing the food bank’s staff and leadership to where it is today.
In addition to increasing staff, Ken has increased collaboration among hunger-relief agencies during his time at the food bank. Early in his role, he was surprised by the lack of collaboration between organizations fighting hunger across the same region. And although collaboration has greatly increased in the last 10 years, Ken is still striving to strengthen these partnerships.
“One of the things I want to make sure of is that we as an organization are looking at how to collaborate and cooperate with our partners — that we’re not just doing our thing in spite of anybody else, but we’re doing it collectively as part of a community fighting hunger.”
In his opinion, one of the most impactful collaborations in the last 10 years was the creation of the Community Food Club in Grand Rapids.
“We’re seeing this model duplicating and it all started right here in this community with a group of seven nonprofit leaders that came together and said, ‘let’s do something different.’”
In addition to the food club’s collaborative roots, innovation is also a key factor in its success and is crucial to the fight against hunger. The charitable food system as it exists today was born in the ‘80s. So much has changed since then, so it makes sense for hunger-relief models to shift as well.
There are lots of food banks within the Feeding America network that have innovative programs Ken finds inspiring. Most aim to shorten the line or focus on the connection between hunger and health. Others focus on organizational and programmatic sustainability.
Ken knows that there will always be people who need help putting food on the table, so food banks and their hunger-relief partners will always be necessary. But his long-term goal is to significantly reduce the number of people who need to rely on charitable food. He intends to use collaboration and innovation to get there.
“I’m still looking forward to the day when I can go to the board and say next year, we’re going to distribute 20 percent less food because people are doing better.”