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A search for his estranged father that led to the streets of Portland, Oregon, put San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Eric Cooper on a path to dedicating his life to those in need.
In reconnecting with his homeless parent, Cooper was inspired by a story his father told of a local caterer who donated food to people living on the streets, ensuring they would not go hungry.
Cooper, who had made a lucrative career out of launching several startup businesses, set out in search of a job where he could be similarly useful, and eventually went to work for a food bank in Utah as the volunteer and food drive coordinator, working his way up to deputy director. From there, he moved to Dallas where he was the product donations manager for the North Texas Food Bank.
In 2001, he joined the San Antonio Food Bank as president and CEO, at 31 becoming the youngest to lead the nonprofit in its history. During his tenure, the San Antonio Food Bank has grown to more than 180 employees and increased food distribution from 10 million pounds to more than 75 million pounds last year. The food bank feeds 58,000 people per week across 16 counties in Southwest Texas.
In an average year, the San Antonio Food Bank distributes nearly $125 million in food to those in need.
On a recent December day, Cooper was at the Pre-K 4 SA North Education Center on Medical Drive, where food bank employees and volunteers were handing out bags of fresh produce to families of the students for use during the winter holiday break.
He talked about why he left the for-profit business world to spend the last 26 years leading food banks in Utah and Texas and how he approaches his work with a sense of urgency. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rivard Report: When you got a degree in business, you didn’t set out with the intention of running food banks throughout the nation. What brought you to this line of work?
Eric Cooper: Out of college I was blessed to have had some success in starting businesses with some great friends and colleagues. My parents were recently divorced, with my dad leaving my mom to raise my brother and sister and figure out how to pay the bills when she didn’t have a job, so I would send money to support them. Because of this, I begrudged my dad and did not speak to him for several years because I felt like he shirked his responsibilities. I continued to stew over the situation and eventually I decided that I wanted to find him and give him an earful about the damage he caused. In the journey to reconnect, I found him homeless on the streets of Portland.
He never admitted he was homeless, he just said that he was the beneficiary of people’s generosity. He lived in an abandoned camper trailer behind a transmission shop with no running water and no electricity. A woman who owned a catering business would drive the streets at the end of the day and give out whatever food that didn’t sell to the homeless, and that’s how he ate.
Finding your loved one homeless, struggling, dirty, needing laundry, needing a shave – it truly broke my heart. I went with this mind of frustration and anger only to find him in a place of total despair. The moment really changed me, and it is ultimately what drew me to this work. I could no longer see someone in need as a stranger; I saw a brother, a sister, a mother – I saw my dad. In terms of my career, I was in a moment where I could make a transition. I started looking for opportunities where I could be useful and help people who were struggling, and that’s what brought me to the space of trying to put food on people’s tables for 26 years. It’s been a privilege to be useful.
RR: Throughout your career, have you seen any changes in the types of people who are food insecure?
EC: The difference between the people who were walking through the doors of the food bank 25 years ago versus today is that back then, so many of the people needing help were unemployed. Today everyone has a job, they just don’t make enough. Employment is a way out of poverty, but it has to be the right job at the right wage with the right benefits. Instead of talking about a minimum wage, I think we need to talk about a self-sufficiency wage. I think that sometimes people look at those who are asking for help and think the fundamental issue is that there was a mistake, or a decision was made to put them in that situation. But people need to understand that it’s the times when a crisis hits, when there is an unexpected car expense or medical bill, or the utility bill is high … those situations rob a household budget, putting those people in a situation where they need food.
Oftentimes the people I see walking through our doors are working harder than any of us. They are waking up earlier, juggling a bus schedule, working maybe two different jobs, managing childcare, and are just trying to get by. I think sometimes these people are looked at too critically, or from a space of judgment where they are thought to be lazy or taking advantage. But the families I see today just want opportunity. I know without a doubt that my line [at the food bank] would decrease if we as a community worked to get these people a better wage so they can get to a better place.
RR: What makes the San Antonio Food Bank different than the other 200 food banks across the United States, and what does the organization have in store for the near future?
EC: We are a little bit of a unicorn in the space of food banking. Most people think that as far as the industry goes, the San Antonio Food Bank has gotten out of our lane. We do a lot more than just provide nourishment to those who need it. Charitable systems can get people food today, but when it comes to getting food tomorrow, it’s programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, WIC Nutrition Program, Medicaid, Medicare, and long-term care for seniors that are our nation’s safety net to stabilize for tomorrow.
We do public benefit application assistance, and the staff works really hard to make sure families know when they are eligible, and help them apply in case they don’t understand or cannot complete the application process. We also have job assistance programs that help people with résumé writing, job placement, and job training to help people find meaningful employment. We have a culinary arts program that just graduated its 83rd class of students, and graduates around 50 people each year.
Over this next year we will be raising funds to expand our culinary footprint by expanding our culinary training center to help more parents who want to better nourish their families, and will include space for wild game processing. We are also building a kitchen in New Braunfels and breaking ground on building apartments to provide affordable housing options to struggling families that live in the area.
RR: What can the San Antonio community do to support the food bank and its mission?
EC: I definitely think there is more we need to be doing in San Antonio around equity and inclusion. So many of the issues with families in poverty stem from racism and inequality. If we are going to be a community where everyone thrives, we need to think strategically about how we eliminate those historical barriers and boundaries that keep people segregated. We all need to raise our voices and encourage aid to go to those who struggle. It’s been an interesting couple of years when it comes to public policy, and I think this nation could do a little more for those who are most vulnerable.
Otherwise, just be kinder. Smile more. If we are all kinder and reached out to our loved ones and do what we can to take care of our families and neighbors, that really solves problems. We need to bring our community to a higher place of consciousness and compassion, and lead by example by creating more space for understanding.