Bill Bolling has dedicated his life to engaging, educating and empowering disparate – sometimes, desperate – people and institutions, bringing them together to solve the problems within their communities, coaxing the body politic to heal itself. It’s been one long and elaborate game of connect-the-dots for Bolling, who is genetically inclined to always say yes, but does not want this story to be about him. He wants it to be about the dots.
“In fact, it’s very uncomfortable on a certain level to get plucked out as the guy who did this or that, because one never works alone,” says Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). “I guess I did create what we might call the container that allows all this good work to go on. But I did that with the help of a lot of other people.
“It’s all about the community. It always has been, and I’m just one among the many.”
Nonetheless, this is Bolling’s story, because he’s Georgia Trend’s 2012 Georgian of the Year, for creating and growing and maintaining the container – he also calls it a tool – that has been feeding hungry people since 1979, when he started the South’s first food bank (and one of the nation’s first) in the basement of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
And his job has never seemed so critical. A miserable economy, high unemployment, increased poverty and a disappearing middle class are adding up to more hunger, and the ACFB has responded, increasing food distribution by more than 30 percent a year for the past three years.
Without increasing staff and utilizing more than 1,000 volunteers a month, the ACFB dispersed about 34 million pounds of food in fiscal 2010-2011 to more than 700 partner agencies in 38 North Georgia counties, including Metro Atlanta, and Bolling doesn’t expect the trend to reverse any time soon, either.
“For the past several years, we were all just working harder, thinking that this economic climate was an anomaly and things would go back to the way they were. I don’t think it’s going back.
“But we’re not broke; we’re not without resources,” he says, meaning the collective “we,” all of us, not the ACFB by itself. “I think that maybe we were intoxicated before. We started to feel like we were owed all this … stuff. And this is our wake-up call. We weren’t owed anything, so now let’s figure out what really has value.”
Leave it to Bolling, the eternal optimist, to find a silver lining even as more stomachs are growling.
“In my talks, I always say there aren’t many good things that can come out of a depression or a recession or whatever this is. But when I say that we’re distributing 34 percent more food, and dealing with the logistics of that, all the trucks, the warehouse, it just means that thousands more people are helping their neighbors,” he says.
“It’s really neat to see what people are capable of doing for each other in uncertain times. In the past, so many of us used to think of those ‘other people’ or that ‘other guy.’ Maybe they were immigrants, maybe they were poor people, maybe they had personal problems and made bad choices, but they were the ‘others.’
“Now, that ‘other guy’ is your brother-in-law or your neighbor.”
Bolling says that 20 percent of the people looking for assistance through the ACFB today have never asked for help before. And when you consider that about half of the people fed through the ACFB have jobs but aren’t earning a livable wage, it’s easy to understand the thoughts and emotions driving the Occupy movement.
“We’re living in a new reality,” says Bolling. “It’s a challenge for all of us in America right now, and we’re operating out of fear. Fear is the common denominator. It’s what sells today. It’s the core emotion we’re dealing with as a society.
“We should remember that for over 200 years we’ve faced every challenge. We’ve gone through tough times. It’s what gives us character. So, we’re in one of those times now. But if your orientation in life is to see problems as opportunities, then we are living in incredible times right now.”
Bolling was the only kid in tiny Denton, N.C., who drove a tractor to Little League practice. The tractor was a gift from his grandfather, Ben Carroll, who told him to plough gardens all around the rural town for widows and people who didn’t have much of their own.
“That was the world I grew up in. Everybody seemed to help everybody,” says Bolling, who was six when his birth father died and he moved with his mother, Becky, to live in a house Carroll built just for them.
Becky eventually married Don Garner, a man that Bill still thinks of as “Dad,” not stepdad. Garner owned a small broom manufacturing company, which is where Bill spent most of his after-school hours, working and letting the entrepreneurial spirit sink in.
But he inherited his sense of community service from his grandfather, who was the city manager, policeman and dogcatcher (among other things) in Denton, a city of about 800 some 40 miles south of Winston-Salem. And when a house caught on fire in the middle of the night, he’d wake up his eight-year-old grandson Bill, who lived next door.
“I was his sidekick,” Bolling says. “We also had a little farm on the edge of town, raised some animals, grew our own food. And my grandfather would go out and lease more land and grow more food. We’d fill up the truck and ride around town – he knew where the needy families lived.
“I guess my grandfather was the first food banker I ever met.”
Bolling joined the Air Force at 17, right after high school, and spent almost two years in Vietnam working on C-130s’ airborne navigation systems. He saw plenty of combat from the air, got shot at, and it left its mark.
“Those are big markers in a young life, going to war,” says Bolling.
When he left the Air Force in 1969, he got involved in the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement and got seriously involved in his spiritual journey.
He worked a thousand jobs, give or take, and was, at different times, a carpenter, surveyor, salesman and carpet cleaner, went to college at Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.) on the GI Bill, then moved to Georgia for grad school (he studied Humanistic Psychology at West Georgia College), met his wife, Haqiqa, and together they started an interfaith community on 10th and Myrtle streets in what was a rough part of Midtown Atlanta at the time.
The community worked with homeless people, the mentally ill, taught and practiced meditation, even started a restaurant, and Bolling discovered that he was an entrepreneur and a leader. He also started volunteering at St. Luke’s and learned to always say yes.
“I had been running a community kitchen for about four years and didn’t have a vision of what the food bank would be. For me it was a matter of getting some other congregations to open their doors and help feed the hungry,” Bolling says. “I actually went out and promised all these congregations all the food they needed if they would just open up. Lo and behold, one of them said yes, and I didn’t have the food!
“So that’s how the food bank started – I needed some place to store the food.”
He introduced himself to everyone he could in the food industry, and when someone called to say, “We found 15 tractor-trailer loads of this food in our warehouse, and its almost out of date … can you take it?” Well, the answer was yes.
“The answer is always yes. That’s how you learn to figure things out,” Bolling says. “I couldn’t keep 15 tractor-trailer loads in that basement, so you start thinking about who else you can share it with.”
St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, the world’s first, was established in Phoenix in 1967 by John van Hengel, who developed the food “banking” concept – individuals and resources (like grocery stores disposing of food in damaged packaging) could deposit food and funds, and social agencies could make withdrawals of food for their clients at no cost.
By the late 1970s the idea was spreading fast, and when Bolling started the ACFB, about a dozen others around the country were cropping up. They met to share knowledge and ideas, formed a national network called America’s Second Harvest (now known as Feeding America), and the ACFB had the franchise for the entire Southeast.
“I helped start food banks in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida,” Bolling says.
The network grew within Georgia, too, as banks started in Savannah, Macon, Augusta – there are seven across the state today (an eighth is being developed in Gainesville) under the umbrella of the Georgia Food Bank Association, headquartered at the ACFB. Together, they serve more than 2,500 agencies that feed people in all 159 Georgia counties.
“Necessity was the mother of invention,” says Mike Firmin, founder and executive director of Golden Harvest Food Bank in Augusta, established in 1982.
“Second Harvest didn’t have Augusta in its expansion plan. It wasn’t considered a major food distribution center,” Firmin says. “But this community had great determination, and Bill saw that. He saw it in me and in how I described what we were doing in Augusta. He lent his support; he shared food and connections. Basically, he kind of discipled me in the food banking movement.”
Today, the Augusta food bank serves more than 400 nonprofit agencies in Georgia and South Carolina. And you can hear a bunch of those stories from other food banks across Georgia, nonprofit entrepreneurs whose core business is to feed the hungry by leveraging the resources in their communities.
“One of the great things about food banking is it provides a very real, locally governed structure for people of goodwill who want to make a difference to plug into, at every level, with their time or their money,” Firmin says.
And Bolling is the guy who first started rolling that social snowball. It’s grown to startling proportions.
The ACFB is now in its fourth location – a state-of-the-art, LEED-certified 129,000-square-foot facility (a first for any food bank in the country) that features one of the state’s largest rooftop solar power arrays. About 110 employees and hundreds of volunteers work in the acquisition, processing, packaging and shipping of food. They have a fleet of trucks that make deliveries to partner agencies all over the region, utilizing logistics software acquired from UPS and a fleet of 15 tractor-trailer trucks.
“We’re learning something new every day, and when you’ve got to learn something you ask yourself, ‘Who’s the best?’ Well, we were growing rapidly and we had a logistical challenge, but Atlanta is the center of logistics,” Bolling says. “We’ve got UPS. We’ve got Coca-Cola, which sends out 800 trucks a day. I invited all of them to the table to teach us.”
Bolling talks a lot about the table, about bringing people of different political or religious ideologies to the table where they discover common ground and goals.
“One of Bill’s key talents is his remarkable ability to engage the entire community, to relate to all segments of the community,” says Rob Johnson, chief operating officer at ACFB. “He’s always striving for inclusion of as many people as possible. One minute he’ll be talking and interacting with someone on the street, a homeless person, and the next he’ll be meeting with a senator or a CEO.”
Johnson, who started one of the first overnight homeless shelters in Atlanta, was one of Bolling’s early shoppers. He joined ACFB in the 1980s after doing a feasibility study that led to the launching of Atlanta’s Table, a pioneering partnership in which the ACFB picks up prepared, ready-to-eat food for quick turnaround from local restaurants, caterers and hotels. That program led to passage of a state law protecting food donors from liability. The ACFB handles about 600,000 pounds of prepared food every year now.
Through the years the ACFB has added a variety of other projects to its mission. The Community Gardens Project has inspired more than 175 gardens all over North Georgia. Communities are growing their own food, and by the way, the food bank collects about 100,000 pounds of food a year from these gardens to feed others.
Kids In Need provides school supplies for more than 300 Title I schools in a dozen systems. The Atlanta Prosperity Campaign connects working families and individuals to money-saving programs and existing benefits, such as earned income tax credits – last year they brought more than $22 million back into the pockets of people who really need the cash (i.e., not the proverbial one percent).
“See, that’s what I call economic development,” says Bolling, who has worked every angle he knows to make it all happen, but sees some tough challenges ahead.
There was federal stimulus to help meet the demand of the past couple of years. That money’s gone now, but while most banks were trying to figure out what to do with their federal cash injections, the food bank was putting its stimulus to work on the street.
And the food bank is looking at a 30 percent cut in aid from the USDA, even as it takes on the job of managing the federal TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) contract for Georgia – a perfect example of public-private partnership that actually works.
“The collection, transportation and accounting for food? We do that better than the government can, so it makes perfect sense,” Bolling says. “A dollar coming into the food bank makes $7.30 worth of food going out the door. The government can’t come close to that. The TEFAP contract takes us beyond the rhetoric of ‘public-private’ to a better reality.”
But now he’s contemplating that rueful exercise that’s become a universal theme in a circle-the-drain economy – doing more with less. Emptier than usual shelves in the warehouse worry him, but a couple of new programs will help keep food moving, he says.
First, the ACFB is servicing retail stores like never before – 87 Walmarts, about 140 Krogers and 160 Publix stores. They get about three million pounds of food a year just from the Walmarts, and it serves as one of Bolling’s classic win-win scenarios.
“Walmart’s commitment in this was not feeding hungry people, it was to the environment. They’re one of the leading companies practicing environmental stewardship, so they’re committed to not putting stuff in landfills,” he says. “That’s stuff we can use.”
America throws away about 40 percent of the food it grows and packages, and Bolling has made it his life’s work to link that otherwise wasted resource with the people who need it. It has brought him in contact with the people who can afford to help.
“I’m not sure why I initially felt like I could go to CEOs or politicians, into boardrooms, but over time I’ve come to realize that I belong at those tables,” Bolling says. “We’re providing a huge community service, an asset, so I need to be at those tables, especially in these times. It’s all about creating win-win situations.”
He isn’t planning on retirement, not anytime soon, though the ACFB is in the midst of sustainability and succession planning.
“I’ll retire as executive director of the food bank some day, but as a sense of purpose, I think I’ll always be feeding hungry people,” he says.
It’s what sustains him, feeding hungry people and bringing others along for the ride, connecting those dots, changing lives, and by extension, maybe the world.
“When one person helps another person, that’s when transformation happens,” he says. Given Bolling’s line of work, and his Christian faith, he thinks often about the classic “stone soup” story and its Biblical relative, the parable of Jesus feeding the 5,000.
“Getting 5,000 different people to share their stash, that’s the big miracle,” he says. “This is our miracle today. That’s the story of the food bank.”