CEO of Food Bank Second Harvest Heartland Stepping Down
Rob Zeaske, the CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, is saying goodbye to the heartland – that being both the non-profit organization and the geographical region. Zeaske is stepping down from his position to move to Boston with his family as his wife takes on a new job in the city.
Zeaske has been CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, which works to connect community members in need with food and related resources they need for nutritional health, since February of 2008. He will continue leading the St. Paul based food bank, founded in 2001, through the end of the calendar year.
But Zeaske won’t be a lame duck CEO in his final months with Second Harvest Heartland. The business executive spoke with TCB about making the decision to leave, how he got involved with the non-profit in the first place, and what’s next for the non-profit both during his remaining days and beyond.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q What drew you to working for Second Harvest Heartland in the first place?
I was a for-profit guy and I switched over to two non-profit positions, neither of which really affected the community in which I worked. I worked for an international relief and development agency and then I worked for a national early education organization, and I really wanted to do something that affected my local community, and I really wanted to focus on something that was also going to be able to work at the basic needs level of our community, that was going to make a difference – whether that was housing or education…
I wanted to find some place that I could marry my business experience with a local, meaningful basic needs organization, and the Second Harvest Job was open, and so that seemed like a perfect fit, especially given all the ways this organization is intertwined with industry in our community. And here – the “Silicon Valley” of food production – in the Twin Cities is a great place to be doing this kind of work.
Q What has been your biggest takeaway from your tenure with Second Harvest Heartland?
When I joined in 2008 we were just at the front end of the recession, understanding what was going on, we were seeing triple digit increases on many of the food shelves… in terms of increased demand. Everybody seemed to know someone who was affected heavily by the recession in 2008.
I think much of my 10 years has been about how we try to react and respond for those people who were hit hardest by the recession and have struggled in the recovery. As I think about the end of ten years, I hope we don’t forget about how many of us here in our community live near that place of having need, if we have an urgent crisis or event of some kind.
But I also hope we keep remembering that we can do this, that we haven’t lost our scope and our assumption that there’s enough food out there – in the breadbasket of the world’s wealthiest nation, we can do this. And so, I think that – there’s a lot of work to be done, but I remain just as confident, more confident that this is a problem we can solve, than ever in my 10-year career.
Q For how long has your departure been in the works?
[Not until] pretty recently. My wife has had this job for a little over a year where she’s been commuting to Boston… she has a fantastic job with GE ventures, and there’s been a lot of changes happening with that organization as well, and as that happened, it became clear that she needed to be on site. And for our family, we decided that this was really important, and our compass is pointing right now to making sure we support her in this new big job, and so we’re excited to be able to do that.
Q In the announcement of your departure, it was stated that Second Harvest Heartland is better positioned than ever for this kind of change-up in leadership. In what ways is it different from when you became CEO?
The executive team is great, but I think also we’ve seen an evolution of our board. This is an experienced board, it’s made up of a who’s who group of executive members of companies — large and small, non-profit and for-profit in the Twin Cities — that are ready to go for this kind of transition.
We’re [also] in the midst of executing a well-aligned strategic plan. We’re at the tail end of a capital campaign — that’s one of my key deliverables before I leave. [And] We’re going to have a brand-new building for us to be able to do more in our community. The team is aligned around the right kind of programs to be able to have a bigger, healthier impact.
Q Can you elaborate on the plan and capital campaign?
We just purchased a new building, so we’ll be moving our headquarters to Brooklyn Park, and we’re far enough along with the fundraising on that that we’ll be moved forward with the renovation this fall, as well as investment — this contains investment in some of our key programs, including produce, a child hunger initiative, as well as a hunger and health program called FoodRX.
Q How big is the new facility?
[It’s] 233,000 square feet. We hope it’s going to be a best-in-class place for volunteers in our community. This year, over 60 percent of the food we distribute will be fresh, and that’s a radical change from 10 years ago when it was less than 20 percent. And so that’s going to be really important that we have a warehouse that’s designed to be food-safe and to move at the speed of produce.
And just kind of a quick look back, in 2008 we distributed about 37 million pounds of food, and like I said 20 percent of it was fresh. This year, we’re on pace to deliver 100 million pounds of food and 60 percent of it is going to be fresh. Most of that is fruit and vegetables. We’ve really focused on the health of the food for our neighbors that we know are disproportionally likely to struggle with health and so this is really important for our long-term strategy as well.
Q How does your former headquarters compare to your new one?
Our current facility that we have in Maplewood is about 72,000 square feet, but we also had a facility in Golden Valley that we’ve leased — that’s about 37,000 square feet. So this will be about twice as big and is in line with other food banks that we work with as part of our national network called Feeding America. We’re actually the second-largest food bank in the country in terms of distribution of meals.
Q Last year, Second Harvest reported serving 532,000 meals to people. How is 2018 shaping up?
We use an equivalence of pounds and meals, so we will certainly be ahead of that this year. I want to say we’re closing in on a 10 percent increase in terms of growth this year, but I don’t know yet what that will be in terms of number of people served.
Q What is the plan for finding your replacement?
I can say that we do have a well-designed succession plan, [however] I don’t think it’s right for me to say more than that. But part of our succession plan is that the board will commence a national search for my replacement.
Q What challenges might your successor face in moving the food bank forward?
I think how we continue to make sure that in an improving economy, that hunger and basic needs is just relevant, and that people we serve aren’t forgotten. It’s easy to see low unemployment numbers, improvements in the market returns, and assume that people are being taken care of, but that’s not the case for many, many Minnesotans, so I think making sure we continue, in a good economy, to find support and care of our neighbors that are struggling and have not enjoyed the improvements or the recovery is very important for us.
Q What overall advice, then, do you have for your successor?
I think the thing that has been so important in our work is that we continue to have and provide hope and optimism to our community, that there is – on my worst days, I worry that we’ve lost our hope and our confidence or our imagination that we could live in a community that doesn’t have to have hunger. So, for me, making sure we continue to move with hope and urgency to be able to muster the resources, the massive abundance that we have in our community, and put that to work so that whatever the situation, no one in our community needs to go without a meal.