Merger Set Path for Growth, Hope
When Robert Emmons was asked to recall memorable projects funded by the Food Industry Crusade Against Hunger, the first that came to mind was an irrigation system in Africa that helped poor farmers become self-sufficient.
"It was a very rudimentary system -- just a series of barrels -- but as a result, the farmers in this valley got two crops a year instead of one," explained Emmons, a former board member and president at FICAH. "For $50,000, it totally changed the economic realities of the group of farmers in that valley and impacted the lives of 10,000 people. It was a miraculous story."
In the 1990s, Emmons in effect got two crops out of a single garden when he oversaw the merger of FICAH and Food For All, the charitable organization based on the West Coast. According to Emmons, the merger, completed in 1997, helped the efforts of both charitable groups and was a key move toward setting FICAH and Food For All on the path to growth in the 21st century.
Emmons, the former chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based retailer Smart & Final, described his role at FICAH and Food For All as a time of change and reorganization. In addition to the merger, Emmons worked to make other changes including moving the organization's headquarters from the Georgetown section of Washington to its current location in Falls Church, Va., and hiring government and food industry veteran Denis R. Zegar as chief executive officer. Zegar retains the role overseeing the combined operations today.
"We streamlined the organization and made it more effective," Emmons said. "When we brought FICAH and Food for All together, there were some economies it brought that made it possible to reduce the cost of operations and deliver more dollars to those in need."
Though both groups were formed in 1985, and both sought to support charities that championed self-sufficiency for the less fortunate, FICAH and Food For All prior to their merger had some significant differences.
The former was funded primarily through corporate contributions of founding grocery distributor companies and directed its donations largely overseas; the latter raised the majority of its money from consumer contributions at retail stores in support of local charities.
Food For All was strongest near its founders on the West Coast while FICAH brought in retailers from the East and Midwest. The food retail industry was meanwhile changing as a result of a spate of business mergers.
"When it makes a lot of sense for all concerned, mergers can happen whether in the corporate or nonprofit world," Emmons said. "As a result of the merger, we were able to significantly expand the number of stores that participated and supported either FICAH or Food For All. In some ways, the organizations were competing."
Emmons said he encouraged Food For All retailers to leverage FICAH's experience overseas and set aside a portion of local contributions for international efforts (many today do, said Zegar).
"My feeling is that the United States has an important role to play internationally in addressing the poverty that exists in so many countries, especially in this time of terrorism," Emmons said. "Because when people don't have hope they turn to extreme measures. One of the things that FICAH brought to the international scene was hope, the idea that families could do something to save themselves.
Founders Made Good First Impression
Twenty years ago, in Redlands, Calif., the husband-and-wife team of Milan and Linda Hamilton dreamed up Food For All, a philanthropic program based upon the notion that a supermarket is a good place to remember those who are hungry.
Good idea, thought Jack Brown. But it took a bad car to convince him.
"I ran across the Hamiltons one day in the city of Redlands and they were driving the most beat-up, dented car you'll ever see," recalled Brown, the chief executive officer of Colton, Calif.-based Stater Bros. Markets. "And I thought, 'That money they raise surely isn't going to their transportation.'
"I think nonprofit organizations make a mistake by driving fancy cars and having luncheons in expensive places," he continued. "To those of us who donate, that's not what we intend the money for. So when I saw the very humble way the Hamiltons ran Food For All, I knew it was an organization to get behind. And we did."
Stater Bros. became the first supermarket in the country to roll out Food For All programs chainwide. Stater Bros. customers and employees have donated more than $2 million to the program since then.
Brown first became familiar with Food For All when it debuted at an independent Redlands store called Gerard's, run by an acquaintance of Brown, Paul Gerard. Then as now, the program raised money for area hunger relief charities by merchandising gift cards in various denominations by the registers.
"I thought that was an excellent idea," Brown recalled. "But it was rudimentary." Implementing it in more than one store would be complicated, Brown knew. "I arranged with [the Food Marketing Institute] to meet with the UPC Council to have a [Universal Product Code] put onto the Food For All cards. Once we did that, we were able to take the program chainwide."
Soon thereafter, other California retail stores including Lucky Stores (now owned by Albertsons) began offering Food For All cards at its checkstands and the program was on its way. Today, Food For All, which merged in 1997 with the distributor-founded Food Industry Crusade Against Hunger, has raised nearly $40 million in anti-hunger programs worldwide, and retailers from all over the country participate.
Food For All was a success, Brown said, because it nurtured and reinforced a bond between shoppers, the retailer and local community. "It works because people trust their neighborhood store," Brown said. "They know the proprietor and the people that work there. They know their money is going to go to support the right thing.
"We're very proud to be the first chain that took this program chainwide," Brown added, "and very proud of the Hamiltons and of the late Paul Gerard who had the courage to start it in his store."