Feeding Human Needs Fuels Sanford's Work at Food Bank

By Zachary Zoeller

"I feel like I went from feeding the soul to feeding the body. This has been a perfect match for me."
- Susan Sanford
Name: Susan Sanford
Position: Executive Director
Company The Memphis Food Bank
Basics: Sanford, who has a background in the arts, says her overriding goal in whatever she does is to help others.

An out-of-court settlement often means a big payday for a plaintiff.

For Susan Sanford of the Memphis Food Bank, settling with a canned-pasta giant in 1997 when the company used the Food Bank's slogan, "Feed the Need," meant two truckloads - or 90,160 pounds - of macaroni and beef.

And the winners were the city's hungry.

Sanford's bio reads like a who's who of nonprofit groups. From the National Council of Jewish Women to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), her involvement in the local community stretches back more than 30 years.

However, since September 1991, Sanford's heart has been in her position as executive director of the Memphis Food Bank.

"It's only one of three jobs I've ever applied for in my life," she said.

Eenie, meenie, minnie, mo

Although it might not seem like Sanford's previous roles as membership and development director at the Brooks Museum of Art and vice president of the Memphis Arts Council would prepare her for a career in the food industry, Sanford's desire to serve is still her guiding light.

"I feel like I went from feeding the soul to feeding the body," she said. "This has been a perfect match for me."

And shortly after she started at the Food Bank, she put her artistic side to work.

"We ... got a grant from Cargill (Inc.) for a new forklift, and I didn't want to tell everyone I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "So being in the arts, I chose between the green one, the orange one and the yellow one."

A towering oil painting hangs behind her desk, depicting people crossing a Downtown Memphis street corner, but it could represent something much more personal - her knowledge of the city and how to help its hungry people.

"I feel like I know the real Memphis," she said. "Lots of people don't have the advantage of knowing this city ... they never see the people we help."

About 70 percent of children in Memphis City Schools could qualify for free or reduced lunches, she said, and the Food Bank makes a $6 million impact on the city's economy every year.

Staying power

Awards, such as the 1997 accolade "50 Women Who Make a Difference" from Women's News of the Mid-South (now Memphis Woman Magazine) and the 1980 Volunteer of the Year Award from Volunteer Center of Memphis, adorn a wall in Sanford's modest office.

Born in Memphis, the 61-year-old has seen great changes in the city over the years and says her impression of it has improved.

"I agree with all the outside experts who say, 'You're too hard on yourself.' This is a great place," she said. "Race relations have improved, and that's important if we want to move forward."

Race is definitely a factor in hunger, as 70 percent of hungry Memphians are black, she said.

"What I continue to tell people is hunger is not a cause of anything. It's a symptom of life problems," she said. "Poverty has many facets, but hunger is a symptom."

When Sanford left home in 1962 to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she got one of her first tastes of civil activism.

"I took part in a civil rights march the week I got there," she said.

No such thing as strangers

As Sanford strolls through the Food Bank's warehouse, workers are busy arranging miscellaneous food items, sorting palettes and loading trucks with food. She greets each person by name, and they return the kindness.

"It's important to manage by walking around," she said.

Sanford knows all the Food Bank's employees well because she personally interviews all applicants. One of the most important qualities she seeks is a pleasant disposition.

"It's very important that our drivers have customer service skills and honesty," she said.

Her personable demeanor makes her a well-respected individual in the workplace and the local community, said Estella H. Mayhue-Greer, who has worked with Sanford for 10 years as assistant director at the Food Bank.

"She tends to value the employees' opinions, getting their input," she said. "She's the type of person who never meets a stranger."

A member of Temple Israel, Sanford finds Judaism has much in common with her professional life, providing a spiritual inspiration that keeps her going.

"When I was a little girl, I learned that Judaism is a way of life, and it's always very important to me that I live an honest life of integrity and help as many people as I can," she said. "Certainly, it does translate to what I do here."

She finds joy in her family, which will receive another member Oct. 15 when she gets married to fiancé Bill Reed. Just the mention of the word causes her to smile and shake with delight.

"It's exciting and scary, but it's very nice," she said.

Her oldest daughter, Julie Sanford, 37, teaches kindergarten in Scottsdale, Ariz., and her youngest, Jill Burrows, 34, works as a graphic designer in Los Angeles.

"I feel like I raised two children who are generous and caring and want to help needy people. I'm very proud of that," she said.

Her biggest personal challenge was learning to live alone when Jill left for college.

"I was married for 20 years, and when Jill went to college I realized I had never lived alone my entire life," she said. "I'm proud I learned independence, to support myself."

Professionally, her greatest challenge is one that always has been there and might never go away - distributing nutritious food to hungry people, young and old.

"When I get a donation and a note that says, 'I hope this helps,' from someone who had to wait until their Social Security check came to donate, it's humbling to do what I do," she said.