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Retiring food bank CEO saw ‘birth of a movement’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Back in 1983 in Amarillo, a friend of Melody Wattenbarger’s served on the founding board of the High Plains Food Bank.

“She asked if I’d be interested in coming to work for them, and I asked her what a food bank was. I had no idea,” Wattenbarger said.

“Food banks were just getting started around the country. Prior to then, I had worked for the state of Texas, helping low-income people sign up for different benefits and programs, including food stamps. So the idea of a food bank appealed to me, because it would serve the same kind of population I had worked with before.”

Wattenbarger said it didn’t take long before she realized, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

She eventually became director of the food bank there, and later, after moving to Albuquerque, became the president and chief executive officer of Roadrunner Food Bank.

On Dec. 15, Wattenbarger, 67, will retire.

She and her husband, Steve, will return to their native Texas, where their adult daughter lives, as well as other family members. Her replacement has not been named.

During her 22-year tenure, Roadrunner Food Bank developed a collection and distribution system that now provides food to 70,000 people each week through a network of 450 partner pantries, soup kitchens and schools throughout the state.

Last year, Roadrunner distributed more than 32 million pounds of food.

In addition, under Wattenbarger’s leadership, Roadrunner nurtured a network of thousands of volunteers, acquired a fleet of refrigerated trucks to accommodate ever more donations of fresh foods and produce, and greatly expanded its operation, moving into a larger and more modern 166,000-square-foot warehouse.

Earlier this year the national food bank network, Feeding America, named her a John van Hengel Fellow, an award that recognizes people for outstanding service and accomplishments in the field of hunger relief.

“The history of food banks in this country is a reflection of what communities can do when they put their minds to it,” Wattenbarger said, reflecting on her career. “It’s millions of people throughout the country saying hunger is not acceptable and wasting food is not acceptable.”

Today, there are 200 food banks across the United States providing food to more than 63,000 partner distribution sites and pantries. Of more than 3,100 counties from coast to coast, every one of them has access to this food, she said.

Most of the food banks in the United States started from 1978 to 1985, including Roadrunner, which began operation in 1980, Wattenbarger said.

“I knew pretty early on that I was part of the birth of a movement. It was total luck that I ended up being part of the something that has grown into the largest feeding network in the United States, and probably the world,” she said.

Obviously, much has changed over the years.

When she first began working at the food bank in Amarillo, “the biggest challenge was convincing potential food donors to donate,” she said. “I was thrown out more than once from restaurants, grocery stores and other food businesses because the operators didn’t want to admit they had food that would ultimately wind up in a landfill. They somehow saw it as a reflection that they weren’t good businesspeople or that they were wasteful.”

It was also difficult in the beginning to persuade people and businesses to contribute financially and to donate their time as volunteers “to this new food bank thing.”

Another formidable task was persuading organizations to accept the food and become part of a distribution network. Initially, the organizations had to go to the food bank to pick up the food, but after the food banks began delivering it became easier to get them to sign on, she said.

The type of foods being donated has also shifted.

In the early years, “there was almost nothing in the way of fresh foods and produce, little refrigerated or freezer space in which to store it, and no refrigerated trucks to transport it to our distribution centers,” Wattenbarger said.

Melody Wattenbarger, president and CEO of Roadrunner Food Bank, is surrounded by boxes of fresh produce in the food bank’s 166,000-square-foot warehouse. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Now, 65 percent of Roadrunner’s food is perishable items, including produce. The food bank has 272,000 cubic feet of cooler and freezer space and a fleet of about 15 tractor-trailers and box trucks, nearly all of them refrigerated.

What hasn’t changed is the enormous need to feed hungry people, a need caused by “the intractable problem of poverty,” she said.

New Mexico is perennially ranked as one of the hungriest and most poverty-stricken states in the nation, with one of the highest percentages of children and families living at or below the federal poverty level.

“It’s all about income. People need enough income to live, and New Mexico workers just don’t make a living wage, or there aren’t enough of the kinds of jobs here that pay a living wage, or people don’t qualify to get those kinds of jobs because of a lack of education,” Wattenbarger said.

“Conceptually, it’s not that complicated. People wouldn’t need help with food if they had enough money to buy it themselves. And they would always choose to buy it rather than get it for free by standing in a line for hours, sometimes in the dark, or the cold or the heat. Nobody chooses to do that. It’s misery and shame, and they don’t want to do it,” she said.

“Hunger is a direct result and the worst symptom of poverty.”

Fortunately, there are places like Roadrunner and people like Melody Wattenbarger to treat some of the symptoms.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Rick Nathanson at