Lisa Houston

PalmSprings.com Spotlight: An Interview with Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston joined FIND Food Bank as President and CEO in November 2009. She brings to the field of nonprofit management a strong background in corporate, financial, and real-estate development, including starting and running her own financial-planning company in Canada. Lisa served on the Executive Board of the College of the Desert Foundation for nine years, and currently sits on the Board of Directors of The Community Foundation of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, and was recently appointed to the Board of the California Association of Food Banks. It’s her ability to put the right people at the table that has defined her tenure at FIND.

Lisa Houston has launched several initiatives with the goals of better understanding, alleviating and ending hunger in the Coachella Valley. Spurred by Lisa’s early success as CEO, FIND’s Board of Directors refocused the organization’s mission to secure and allocate the resources necessary for FIND to become a leader in a new, emerging era of food banking. From developing new outreach programs, a mobile pantry, feeding kids while school’s out for the summer, and negotiating free produce for FIND’s nonprofit distribution partners, she excels at creating partnerships to build sustainable, healthy-food-access networks. Most recently, Lisa received the prestigious “Jackie Lee Houston Heart of Gold Award” from the Women Leaders Forum of the Coachella Valley.  

Lisa, your energy and enthusiasm for your mission is contagious. Can you tell us how you chose to focus your efforts on the growing challenge of hunger in the Coachella Valley?

Lisa Houston: I started with FIND as a volunteer in 2009, and it was clear from the beginning that this would be an experience that changed my life. Just spending time with the people we serve is a blessing in both humility and gratitude–I don’t know how anyone could do this work and NOT be moved to act, and to do so with both passion and urgency.

We spoke about the growing problem of food scarcity–that it’s no longer something that simply happens to “other people,” and you shared with me that locally and across the country, one in five American households has known hunger and food insecurity in the last year.  That’s a shocking statistic! How many individuals does FIND Food Bank serve each month? What geographic areas do cover and how many pounds of food do you distribute annually?

Through our network of community-based partners, FIND Food Bank distributes 8-9 million pounds of food assistance annually to an average 80,000 individuals each month across the Coachella Valley, in every community: from Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, and Cathedral City in the western valley, to Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Bermuda Dunes, Thousand Palms, Indian Wells, and La Quinta, to Indio, Coachella, Thermal, Mecca, Oasis, and North Shore in the eastern valley. Our service area actually goes from Banning to Blythe, so all of eastern Riverside County, and up into the high desert and southern San Bernardino County. FIND is the only food bank serving this vast geographical area.

Can you tell us a little more about “food insecurity.” That may be an unfamiliar term for a lot of people. How does an individual or a family become food-insecure? How might it happen to us or our neighbors?

“Food insecurity” is policy-speak for being hungry, for not being able to feed your family in the nutritious manner you would choose because you can’t afford to do so. No one plans to not have enough food to feed their family or themselves, but it still happens. People lose jobs–sometimes they know it’s coming, sometimes they don’t. Easily a third of those accessing food assistance have jobs but don’t earn enough to make ends meet, including having enough money for food. This group of people, the working-class poor, seems to be suffering especially from the longer-term effects of our lingering economic crisis.

Health complications can also be a major factor in individuals and families being food-insecure, especially if your health requires a special diet – it’s pretty much impossible to afford especially nutritious food when you don’t have enough money to begin with. Or, a major health event can wreak havoc in your life, even if you happen to have health insurance – we’ve all heard stories of an illness or injury draining family savings, leaving people vulnerable in so many ways – just imagine the burden of hunger on top of that stress!

The bottom line is: hunger does not discriminate, it doesn’t pick and choose based on what neighborhood you live in or what you do for a living. It can happen suddenly or slowly, even if you never thought it would or could happen to you or someone you know. That’s the thing about hunger–we all need to eat; it’s not like you can go without just because you don’t have enough money.

FIND Food Bank consists of a team of dedicated employees, volunteers, and community-based partners, and has grown to become the leader of a network of more than 90 nonprofit agencies across the Coachella Valley that help provide food for the hungry. How do you seek out and nurture these partnerships and networks? Can you provide us of an example of a successful community partnership?

A successful distribution partner for FIND Food Bank is a community-based program with whom we can work hand-in-hand to insure consistent access to balanced, nutritious food assistance for the low-income population each partner agency serves. Truly, each of FIND’s partners is critical to the community they serve; the goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to get the food they need. Some partners seek us out and we approach others as needed to be sure all communities have access to food assistance.

Lisa, you recently received the inaugural “Jackie Lee Houston Heart of Gold Award” from the Women Leaders Forum (WLF) of the Coachella Valley. This award is named after your late mother-in-law, who was one of the Coachella Valley’s most prolific community leaders in raising funds for those in need. Congratulations! I also understand that you partnered this year with WLF’s “Young Women Leaders Mentoring Program.” Can you tell us more about that program?

Yes, I was thrilled to be part of the Young Women Leaders Mentoring Program through the Women Leaders Forum. We began work months ago to arrange a volunteer experience for the 100 or so young women who participated in the program. They spent a day at the food bank, working through a series of stations that let them really dig into what FIND does as part of the community food-assistance effort. They got their hands dirty, sorting fresh produce that goes on to our agency partners for distribution. Each group also spent time sorting items people donate through food drives across the Coachella Valley, especially during the holiday season, which is when they visited.

The best thing about the day for me, as a mentor, was witnessing the conversations these young women–the leaders of tomorrow–were having as they worked, connecting the threads of direct action with personal experience and current events. This is how we can encourage young people to be part of the solution on the big issues, like hunger–get them involved early and in a direct, meaningful way.

It was particularly interesting to me to chat with you about our shared passion for health and nutrition and preventing childhood obesity. What steps has FIND Food Bank taken to further these goals within the population it serves?

Over the last several years, we’ve quadrupled the amount of fresh produce we distribute! This has been part of a strategic approach our Board of Directors charted for FIND, with the goal of connecting people to additional resources to help feed their families and reduce the overall need for emergency food assistance. The reason for our produce push is to put as many healthy options as possible in front of people accessing food assistance from our partners–we don’t just want to fill hungry stomachs, we want our food to be as nutritious as possible. We know people want to feed their families healthy food, but many struggle to afford it.

Too often, there’s an unfortunate relationship between food insecurity and negative, long-term health outcomes like obesity and diabetes. Our goal is to disrupt that relationship by making better food assistance available; one in every three pounds of food we distribute this year will be fresh produce, making it easier for people to make healthier choices. Another approach we take is to talk with people about the produce and other food assistance we distribute, how to make the best use of specific fresh fruits and vegetables, offering recipes and other suggestions to preserve or maximize the assistance they are receiving with food they buy at the store, using CalFresh benefits or other resources.

I understand you’re originally from Canada, what brought you to Palm Springs?

Love and family–and the weather’s not so bad, either!

When you’re not hard at work, what activities do you and your family enjoy in and around Palm Springs?

Spending time outdoors, hiking, staying active in a number of ways, enjoying the beautiful scenery of our valley whenever we get the chance.

Are there any upcoming Palm Springs events or projects you’re particularly excited about?

April is Hunger Action Month and we’re planning for a big awareness push this spring around hunger, food insecurity, how it happens, how to help, what we can do as a community to fight hunger, including our annual telethon April 5 on KPSP, Channel 2. Please tune in and help us fight hunger in the Coachella Valley!

Lisa Houston, what is it that you love most about the community of Palm Springs?

We are blessed to have so many people working in support of causes they are passionate about – there are a lot of big hearts in our desert community. It warms my heart to have so many join us, stand beside us in the fight against hunger, joining forces across our communities to help others. A highlight for me professionally and for FIND as an organization is when we have an  opportunity to partner with an organization or individual, to maximize scarce resources and create benefit for all parties involved. The needs are great; it helps to be open to new ways of working together to address those needs–no one can do it alone.

Thanks so much for sharing your vision with us, Lisa. And thank you for all you do to fight hunger in the Coachella Valley. FIND Food Bank truly makes our wonderful corner of the world a better place!

If you or your organization would like to be interviewed for a Palm Springs Spotlight, please contact PalmSprings.com.

About Kate Buckley

Kate Buckley is a brand strategist, premium domain broker and consultant, interviewer, storyteller, visual artist, and award-winning poet & writer. She’s worked in media and marketing since 1997, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the author of A Wild Region (Moon Tide Press) and Follow Me Down (Tebot Bach). A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her awards include a Gabeheart Prize and the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize. She was most recently shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. A ninth-generation Kentuckian, she’s made her home in Southern California since 1998.

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