ORGE

Michelle Orge, CEO of Second Harvest Foodbank, in The Capital Times Studio in Madison, on Monday, July 29, 2019. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Michelle Orge has always liked working with food — in college, she was a manager at a restaurant. But she says it wasn’t until she began volunteering at a food bank that she found her calling. 

For Orge, a passion for logistical problem-solving and a heartfelt mission to end hunger have fueled her last 20 years directing food banks in Louisville, Colorado and Ann Arbor, Michigan. She's now bringing that deep experience here: She's the new CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, an organization serving sixteen counties of southwestern Wisconsin, including the Madison area. 

Orge starts work on Monday, at a moment when Feeding America estimates that 1 in 10 people, and 1 in 6 children, are hungry. It's also a moment where policy could exacerbate the problem: The Wisconsin Department of Health Services estimates that 25,000 people could lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if a U.S. Department of Agriculture plan gets approved.

What attracted you to the Second Harvest CEO position?

Coming from food banks that have smaller service areas, you can do more intense work. But you also bump up against some borders. Here, what I'm excited about is having that larger geographic area so you can do more of a regional approach to things. I'm really excited that we're doing some cool work in different areas outside of the Madison area...We are engaging farmers. We're engaging local communities. I'm really excited about doing that.

What will you work entail, and what are some of your top priorities?

Having great people around you (and) building a team. You can’t do it all yourself.

Food banking is a really specific skillset … There are more regulations in food banks than you would imagine. Anybody with an acronym can pretty much come into the food bank -- the FDA, the USDA, state Departments of Agriculture. We have third-party food safety auditors. We have the national network of food banks. We have the IRS.

We bring in additional regulations because some of the people we serve are more susceptible to foodborne illness, because of their age, their health, the amount of nutritious food they get on a regular basis. We don't want to add food safety issues to the mix.

What are the big challenges in food banking you’re dealing with right now — either universally, or specifically within southwestern Wisconsin?

Universally, there's a lot of misperceptions about hunger, and who's hungry. Sometimes people see it as an invisible thing. “Oh, it's that neighborhood; oh, it's that city.” But it’s widespread. Every county of every state has a hunger issue.

For southwest Wisconsin, I think some of the challenges we face is, there are some more populated areas where there are resources, and then there are rural areas where there's fewer resources, but there's still need. Getting resources to people who need them, spreading them out, having a geographic area of 16 counties … that can be challenging.

How does an organization like Second Harvest think about the geography in Madison? There are some neighborhoods here that get a lot of attention for food access issues.

We have mobile pantries, and school pantries will target areas that are gaps. Food banks always look at data, service gaps, and look to see where there are needs. You can bring people to food, or food to people. That's what mobile pantries are for.

You’re a service organization, but things like food benefits and hunger in general are also political. Do you envision the work you want to do at Second Harvest as political?

It's too dangerous for our biggest stakeholder, the people we serve, to take a big political stance on things. What benefits them more is doing what we're great at — getting the food to them, and working on solving hunger and food insecurity for them.

(Regarding benefits), if they're available, and people are qualified for them and we aren't taking advantage of them, that's a loss to our community. That's not just a loss to the people who can qualify for them — it's a loss to local businesses as well. When benefits are spent at local stores, it increases the local strength of a community. It's money left on the table that's already been set aside for our community, and for our state. If that's money not coming to us, it's a disservice for everybody, not the least of which the people who should be getting food.

It's hard, personally. You get really deep into the work, and you forget it can be seen as political, when you're so focused on, “Well, why would nutrition for kids be a bad thing?” You get so focused on that, and then you step out, and you're like, “Whoa...I didn't think that that was going to be seen as political.” After 20 years of this, you have to think about those things.

How tough is it for a food bank to ensure that you’re not just connecting people with food, but nutritious food?

What really attracted me to this food bank is that it’s not just food — it’s great food.

(Nutritious food) is harder to handle. It's more expensive. It's highly perishable, and it’s less often donated. We're working with local donors. Regional and national donors through the Feeding America network. We can get truckloads of produce through the produce brokers through our national network, when we're paying less than 20 cents a pound on getting great produce that would not make it to market otherwise. It's a national version of food rescue. It takes a lot of logistics and it takes resources. There's a lot of free food out there for us, but the handling, refrigeration, the trucks, the people, the expertise. There's a lot of things that go along with it.

Are there political or social trends you foresee impacting your service work over the next few years?

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If public benefits or SNAP benefits change, that puts a lot of pressure on food pantries and food banks. For every one meal Second Harvest provides, SNAP could provide 10.

And then, you know, something that's coming up a lot in the news a lot is food insecurity on college campuses ... students, more so than ever, are struggling with food insecurity. And there are people who say, “Oh, well when I went to college, I ate ramen noodles.” But it's a different situation now. It's more expensive than it ever was.

It's tough. And it might only be for a few years that people struggle. But students are really struggling. It's something you see a lot more of these days. And we shouldn't be writing off tens of thousands of people in our community who are food insecure, just because they're college students, and just because maybe we think that they should eat ramen noodles.

One thing I think about when it comes to food banking and food pantries is the stigma and shame people might feel when they use them. Are there things that groups like Second Harvest can do to cut through that?

I think there's work to be done on this, both around food banks, and also around SNAP benefits and other things. There's stigma that shouldn't be there.

If you think about it, when you think about how much food we're rescuing and how much food waste there is, if people think about it as we're rescuing food that would otherwise go to waste, and they're helping us by finding homes for this food ... that can sometimes help people feel better about it.

Also, food insecurity and hunger is not a static thing. Somebody's not hungry forever. There's different intensities and frequencies. If they can think of it as, sometimes they need food, and sometimes they can give food. Sometimes I'll need it, and sometimes I'll provide it.

If you do like a school pantry, and if it's a school pantry in a school where it has a certain percent of free and reduced lunch, you can open the pantry up to all students. It's not just the "students who are in need." It's everybody -- everybody gets to be part of this.

Any other goals, ideas, benchmarks you'd like to share?

Not yet. There's a lot of great things going on already. My plan is to get in, see what's going on, and build on what's there.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.