The following is a conversation between Casey Marsh, Chief Development Officer of Feeding America, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Casey Marsh, Chief Development Officer of Feeding America

Denver: Feeding America is a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that provide billions of meals to Americans through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies. These food banks have adapted to a new level of need during the pandemic, with many people seeking help for the very first time. 

And here to talk about the many challenges they have faced, including an urgent need for increased funding, is Casey Marsh, the chief development officer of Feeding America.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Casey! 

Casey: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Denver: Before we get into the work that you’ve undertaken over the course of this past year, share with us some of the history of Feeding America. 

Casey: Sure. Well, you covered it pretty well that Feeding America is a network. We are a federated network nationwide, and you mentioned our 200 food banks all over the country. You didn’t mention, though, the 60,000 or so food pantries, soup kitchens, church basements that a lot of your listeners probably think of when they think of their own communities and how the community supports those who are facing food insecurity.

The history of Feeding America is an interesting one. The whole concept of food banking itself was developed in part by John van Hengel, a gentleman who was from Phoenix, Arizona. And this was in the late ’60s. He was a retired businessman. He had been volunteering at one of those soup kitchens that I mentioned, trying to help out in his community, serve his neighbors facing hunger, and find food to support that soup kitchen.

And while he was working there, he met one of his clients at the soup kitchen who happened to be a mother, and she told him that she regularly went through dumpsters behind grocery stores. That’s where she found good food. She said that those garbage bins held a lot of high-quality food, that really nothing was wrong with the food, maybe it was close to being expired or it was irregular in some way. And she was the one who suggested, “You know, there really should be a place, that instead of throwing out all of this food, we should have something similar to the way banks work. Banks store money for future use. Why shouldn’t we have warehouses where we could hold or bank food for future use?”

So that’s kind of how the food banking concept was born, and it really just spread from there. Thanks to Mr. Van Hengel and this idea that actually came from one of our neighbors who was facing hunger herself. 

Denver: Very interesting story. Just a common sense, logical woman got it started just down this road.

Well, Casey, what’s been the increase in demand across the country since, well, March of last year? 

Casey: We’ve faced what we are calling kind of the “perfect storm” at Feeding America since March of last year. We had increased demand. We also had declines in donations of food. You can imagine you yourself probably went to the grocery store last March or April, and saw the empty shelves suddenly. That meant that there were fewer products, donations, fewer items that were available to donate to food banks or to Feeding America. 

We also had a lot of disruption in the number of volunteers who supported us because of social distancing, and of course, people were following their guidelines to protect their own health. So, we rely on millions of volunteers every month, and they decreased dramatically overnight.

So over that time and over the past year really, the demand remained elevated. We’ve been seeing an average increase of about 55% across food banks. So all of those challenges combined with 55% more people in line at your food bank meant a lot of pivoting, a lot of creativity in the way that we addressed that challenge, and a lot of heart and compassion and dedication. I think the food bank network and the teammates that serve at their food banks are, in some ways, at their best in a crisis, and they really came together and rose to the occasion. 

Denver: What was some of the creative pivoting that you did? Give us one example of something that you really looked at from a different framework and came up with a solution.

Casey: You can imagine with social distancing, it was difficult to have the same operating model. So people who were used to going into their local soup kitchen or congregating with other people, who were hoping to get some assistance and support, suddenly had to be much more cautious. And we had to be very careful with our volunteers and our employees as well. 

So one of those ways that we were able to pivot was to quickly develop a lot more mobile distribution points, where we had drive-through pick-ups. Rather than people getting out of their cars and going into a physical space, they could actually drive through, stay safe in their cars, and have our staff and volunteers who were able to be outside in some cases – and masked – help to load the trunk of the car.

So that was something that exploded during 2020 and really helped us to get through the crisis. 

In some areas, our food banks were reporting 40% were first-time visitors. And it was really interesting because we heard more than one story that these first-time visitors had previously been donors or volunteers to that food bank. 

Denver: And as you say, serving over 55% more people, I would guess that a lot of those people were first-time visitors to the food bank. Is that right? 

Casey: Yes. A lot of people were first-time visitors. In some areas, our food banks were reporting 40% were first-time visitors.

And it was really interesting because we heard more than one story that these first-time visitors had previously been donors or volunteers to that food bank. So, they were on the receiving end for the first time, and that was difficult for so many families and so many communities who really didn’t expect to be in that situation.

But there are a lot of families in this country who are that one or two paychecks away from crisis and emergency. And when they reach that crisis, the social safety net, and the charitable food system, and government support as well really have to be in place and strong enough and ready to meet the moment.

Denver: And I would guess another component of all of this would have been school closures and the food insecurity that those children have who depend upon those lunch meals, those school meals. How did that impact you? 

Casey: That was a big one. Before the pandemic even, 22 million children relied on free or reduced-priced meals at school. So, food banks quickly had to start working with school districts, with local governments, to make sure that those same children were receiving meals. A lot of kids really rely on those school meals to be the nutritious meal of the day if there isn’t enough access to food at home. 

There was government support through what’s called the Pandemic EBT. It’s an electronic benefits transfer program. And the nutrition program that was around school lunch, school breakfast, milk programs, they quickly put into place some waivers to make sure that we had solutions to flexibly get those resources to families since they weren’t in the cafeteria, and they weren’t congregated together to get meals. 

So we established central locations with partners for grab-and-go meals. We even used meal delivery using bus routes… school bus routes since they weren’t being used to get the kids physically to school. That was another creative way that we were able to work through some of these challenges.

We don’t have a food problem in the US; we have a problem with access to that food. And unfortunately, one of the areas that the pandemic exacerbated even more is that that access problem is even worse and disproportionate in communities of color. 

Denver: I know you thought about this, but let me ask you anyway. Why does the United States, with all of our resources, have such a terrible food insecurity problem?

Casey: It’s a great question. And it is part of the reason that we recognize that we won’t food-bank our way out of hunger in America. This has to be an effort between the government, the private sector, the public sector, nonprofits. We have to partner on this. We don’t have a food problem in the US; we have a problem with access to that food. And unfortunately, one of the areas that the pandemic exacerbated even more is that that access problem is even worse and disproportionate in communities of color. 

So, we were seeing even before the pandemic, about 35 million Americans facing food insecurity. Essentially meaning, they’re really not sure where their next meal is coming from. Or they might need to make some really difficult decisions and trade – “Okay, I know that I can cover my rent or my medical bills, but I’m not really sure how much I’ll have left for food.” – so in many cases, needing to turn to food banks for some support or the SNAP program for government support. 

So, the access problem is a really, really important part of this story. Latino, Native American, Black households are impacted a lot more compared to white households. And that’s two to three times more. Native American households are 2.9 times more likely to be food insecure. Black families, two-and-a-half times more likely, and Latino families about two times more likely than white households. So, making sure that we’re also investing in communities that are disproportionately impacted, how do we make sure that they get the appropriate support and access to that food is a big part of it. 

It is a marathon. This is not a sprint. This food insecurity – we can’t get back to pre-pandemic rates overnight. It took us about a decade after the great recession to get to pre-recession rates, so we know that we can do better than that. But it is a marathon. It is a slow process. And we really, as I said, we need support from all sectors. It cannot just be the charitable food system. 

Denver: I got vaccinated. I went to the store the other day, and I said, “Holy smokes! What’s happened to the prices here? They’re going through the roof!” And I don’t know what the data shows historically, but what does happen to food insecurity when you get this kind of inflation around food prices? Because we’re certainly in the midst of that right now. 

Casey: Right. And if you combine that inflation with unemployment and with where many families, especially if you look at some of our industries… the restaurant industry that was so hard hit over the past year and starting to come back… and see a little bit more business, a little bit of a return to normalcy… 

But combine that with inflation and the families who were right on the cusp and right on the brink of not really being sure where their next meal was coming from, that tends to really push them a little further in that direction. So I mentioned that before the pandemic, we knew about 35 million Americans were facing food insecurity. And now, we’re looking at around 42 million Americans as we move forward. 

And what we also know is that this is not a sprint. The cameras and the media attention were very much with us in the past year. You’re noticing that those cameras are going away a little bit. I appreciate that you are still highlighting this topic on The Business of Giving. But it’s not in the news as much as it was at the height of the pandemic. 

It is a marathon. This is not a sprint. This food insecurity – we can’t get back to pre-pandemic rates overnight. It took us about a decade after the great recession to get to pre-recession rates, so we know that we can do better than that. But it is a marathon. It is a slow process. And we really, as I said, we need support from all sectors. It cannot just be the charitable food system. 

Denver: Right. And you can’t afford any kind of slippage. You’ve worked so hard to get it to one point, and then all of a sudden, things like this come along, and you say to yourself– you’ve seen that on a global scale with poverty– that we finally got it under 10%, and now people in the international development arena are saying, “Oh my goodness. The last two decades just go, ‘poof’ like that.”

Let’s turn our attention to your specific area of responsibility, which is fundraising. And you mentioned you’re a federation. You have 200 members or so. How does a development team like yours, Casey, work with those members?

Casey: We work very closely with our members. Each of our member food banks, all 200 of them, are their own independent 501(c)(3). So we are a federated network, but they don’t report in to us. We aren’t the umbrella organization as such that we govern them in any way, but we are very close partners with each and every one of our food banks. 

And the way that that plays out on a regular basis is, in many, many ways, we have an incredible team– our strategic capacity support team– that really builds best practices and learnings with the food banks, and hosts webinars and group discussions, and makes sure that we’re sharing resources with one another. You’ll often hear that donors are looking for ways that the nonprofit sector can be more efficient. How can we come together and make sure that we’re increasing those efficiencies with one another? And that is something that the Feeding America network has done extraordinarily well. 

When it comes to fundraising, we also partner in many, many ways. We make sure that if we are reaching out into local communities, we work with our local food bank to do so. And in this past year, I was amazed by how many times my team got phone calls from fundraising teams, that food banks all over the country saying – “You know, I have a great donor. He or she is now interested in doing more, outside of our immediate region. And, of course, I thought of calling you all and bringing in Feeding America.”

And in those cases, in a few of those cases, that resulted in multi-million-dollar gifts that benefited the local communities, but the donor also said, “I want to do more. I want to do more broadly either across the country,” or in one case, a donor wanted to do more in the communities in which he had built his business, and he had manufacturing plants. So, it’s a true partnership when it comes to fundraising and everything else, but we try to earn the trust of our food bank membership every day.

Denver: And that’s exactly what that all suggests, that there’s a trust between the national office and the locals, and that there’s a sense of movement generosity. Doesn’t have to benefit us if it can help the greater good, then we want to do that. 

So, let’s take something like direct mail. Do you tend to look at that from the national office on a centralized basis? Or do all 200 of them try to orchestrate their own direct mail campaigns?

Casey: It’s a little of both right now, honestly. We try to provide centralized resources. And whether that is a list of vendors, consultants who are tried-and-true and trusted, we try to make sure that we’re sharing best practices that we’ve learned. We are looking at lists and how all that flows across all of our food banks.

But food banks have their own boards of directors; they have their own CEOs, and they have their own fundraising teams. So, they know what works best in their local communities. We are really not in a position to tell them that. Our position and our strength is by offering the resources and partnering and working with them to make them better. But they know what works for their donors in their own backyards. 

Denver: Have there been any ways you’ve been able to reduce some of the redundancy? Because there is redundancy, obviously, when you have that, and you’re always looking to see what can we do to make this even more effective and efficient. Have you been able to make some movement in that area? 

Casey: Yes. We have definitely made some movement in that area with direct mail, but with other parts of fundraising as well. If you take a look overall at the past year, just to kind of paint the picture for you, of what it was like to be a fundraiser at Feeding America, our overall fundraising suddenly increased by 250% between FY19 and FY20, and that included over 100% growth in our corporate fundraising, foundations, individual major gifts. And we don’t have any donors who are not also based in a food bank area– 

Denver: That’s right.

Casey: But we constantly have to be looking at making sure that we are reducing redundancies. As that influx of new partners was coming to us, we had to make sure that we were communicating really well and really quickly with local food banks to keep them in the loop. Many of them have the same donors… or those donors were on their prospect list, so it behooves us to work together to develop that relationship. So, I would say reducing those redundancies is a constant goal for us.

Denver: A dynamic goal because it changes every day, and you just keep on working at it. What about some of your corporate partners? I’m sure you have local corporate partners, but you probably also have, as I know, some national ones. Tell us about a few of those and what they’re doing with you.

Casey: Yes, we do. We have both. We have local, we have national, and we have those that cross into many markets. 

I can give you a couple of really interesting examples of how our corporate partners stepped up and got creative along with us. As our network was pivoting, our corporate partners were trying to figure out how to be most useful to the Feeding America network during this time. 

One example is General Mills, who is an existing partner of ours. They were able to keep their production lines open to produce about $5 million worth of food for Feeding America food banks in order to support COVID-19 response.

And in addition to providing funding for the COVID-19 response fund, they produced those whole grain cereals, granola bars, waffles for food banks. So, it helped us with providing that additional nutritious food because we’re always striving for nutritious food, not just any food, for our neighbors at a time when the donations were declining.  But it also helped them to prevent their production lines from going dormant. So it was very much a mutually beneficial partnership. 

Denver: Those are always good.

Casey: We also had partners like Subaru. You may have seen their campaign. As our need for food assistance skyrocketed, Subaru was one of the first to answer the call for support. They stepped up. They gave $5 million immediately. They returned to us only nine months later to commit another $10 million after their CEO Tom Doll saw a news coverage at the holidays featuring those long lines of cars at food banks, which really touched him personally. 

And they did significant advertising campaigns featuring the Feeding America logo and our message about how we can come together to end hunger. And that kind of elevated brand and media attention is something that we couldn’t necessarily pay for without the support of some of our partners. 

Denver: Oh, for sure. Casey, across your network, what new ways are you seeing to engage donors? And here, I’m talking about– you’ve got TikTok. You have cryptocurrency. You have virtual events. What have been some of the things that have caught your eye? 

Casey: Well, it’s interesting because one thing that I’ve noticed, especially during the pandemic and I think will go forward with us in engaging donors, is we have a lot more partners who are asking us and looking to us to be leaders in the space of equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

So they know that this pandemic and the food insecurity rates have disproportionately impacted certain communities – communities of color, BIPOC communities – and they’re asking: How can we help? And what are we, as a network, doing to get to those root causes that impact the communities that have seen the worst of the pandemic? How do we strengthen those communities? 

That’s something that we didn’t necessarily see as much, or at the same level, even a year ago or a year and a half ago – that corporate partners, individuals, and foundations as well are really taking a look at equity and making sure that they are funding organizations in a flexible way that honors and recognizes that local communities and nonprofit experts in those communities have the ability to turn around some of those root causes if they are resourced properly, and they have the right partnerships. 

Denver: One of the more notable gifts you’ve received during this past year was from MacKenzie Scott. Tell us a little bit about that. And also, Casey, what impact do you think gifts like that will have on the field of philanthropy? 

Casey: That’s a great example. And when I joined Feeding America, it was only a little over a year ago, so very early in the pandemic. I had come from UNICEF as a fundraiser for many years. So speaking of the global development issues that you mentioned earlier, that was very much what we were focusing on. 

I was only a few months into this role and started the most extraordinary conversations with a team of consultants who were working closely with Ms. Scott. At the time, only a few people within our staff knew about the conversation. We all were under non-disclosure agreements to make sure that she wasn’t revealing too much until she had made decisions on how to invest. 

But the way that she invested was remarkable. And I think you all saw the result was over a billion dollars of her own funding at the end of 2020. And what she did was, she really looked at underserved communities — or underinvested, I should say — underinvested communities… historically Black colleges and universities, YMCAs, food banks, in areas that are not necessarily highly resourced areas. She took this approach that really centered everything around equity, and we were just amazed by the results. She funded 42 of our 200 food banks. And for many of them, it was the largest gift they’ve ever received in their history. It was stunning for many of our food bank members. 

And she also, generously and unexpectedly, invested $20 million into Feeding America’s national office. With her spirit, and her intention of what she’s trying to accomplish, we used that $20 million to seed the Feeding America Food Security Equity Impact Fund. And that fund will go on and on, and we’ll attract other partners, and we will work with communities in a new way to determine: how is that fund going to be most effectively spent in local communities. So, we’re very much trying to honor the spirit of her gift. And I think that we’ve found a creative way to do so.

Denver: Sounds like you have to. And after carefully vetting you and the other organizations, one of the things that was so delightful about her gift is she then trusted those organizations. She didn’t specify “I want you to do this or that,” other than the broad outline that you’ve just given, but saying “You know what to do.” And we’re not going to have 500 reports coming in in terms of every dime that you’ve spent.” 

Casey: They have very little… minimal requirements. She did her research, so she knew that she was spending her money wisely. But I think that is a really good point, and something that I hope will last post-pandemic. I think that she is changing the way that philanthropy is done in many ways in looking at flexible funding and trust in organizations so that grants are not as prescriptive, perhaps, as they once were. 

Denver: Yes. Because the problem is changing, you know? You can’t do the day grant and think that is the problem. It’s not a snapshot, it’s a moving picture. And every single day, there’s more information. 

Well, you mentioned before, in order to really successfully address this issue, we can’t do it with charitable dollars alone; we can’t do it with the private sector. It’s going to take a combination, which includes government. So, with that being said, what would you say is your top priority in the advocacy realm right now that you’re looking for lawmakers to step up and address?

Casey: Our top priority is strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, and looking at extending the current 15% benefit boost for all recipients for the duration of the economic downturn, to provide that food assistance to help promote economic stimulus. It’s good for local economies, it’s good for grocery stores, and it’s great flexibility for neighbors who are facing hunger. So SNAP is– for every meal that the charitable food system can provide in this country, which is a lot of meals, SNAP can provide nine. That’s the kind of efficiency and scope and scale that it has. 

So, we are advocates for SNAP – for increasing benefit enrollment for SNAP, for making sure that neighbors know that that they have access to SNAP, or that they know how to gain access to SNAP, and making sure that we are talking about SNAP in a way that also reduces the stigma around SNAP. That is something that people are entitled to when they’re facing hard times, and it’s there to make sure that we’re getting families through the hardest of those times. So, I would say that that is definitely one of our top priorities when it comes to advocacy.

I think that people are recognizing now, or have recognized, due to the extraordinary events of the past year, that hunger, food insecurity is not just something that’s happening overseas, over there somewhere, not in our country, not in our backyard. That’s something that happens in every community of the United States. Literally, every community. This isn’t something that is only in certain urban areas or very rural areas. It’s everywhere. And it’s your neighbors. 

Denver: Finally, Casey, do you believe that people will see hunger in a new light, in light of all that has occurred over the course of the past year? And what might be the implications of that? 

Casey: I do think so. I think that people are recognizing now, or have recognized, due to the extraordinary events of the past year, that hunger, food insecurity is not just something that’s happening overseas, over there somewhere, not in our country, not in our backyard. That’s something that happens in every community of the United States. Literally, every community. This isn’t something that is only in certain urban areas or very rural areas. It’s everywhere. And it’s your neighbors. 

People are facing hard times for a lot of different reasons, and that’s something that we know how to support. We know how to get better. We know how to end that. We’ve got plans in place to do that. We’ve got partnerships in place. And we can do it, but we do need support from individuals, from foundations, from corporations, and from government. 

But yes, I think that people are seeing hunger and food insecurity in a whole new light.

Denver:  For listeners who want to learn more about Feeding America, maybe about their local food bank, or financially help support the work that you’ve been talking about, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find there. 

Casey: Sure! Well, our website is So easy to remember – There’s a lot that you can find there.  I’ve mentioned a few things. My area is funds, right? So I can mention that part. 

Funding, fundraising, financial donations are actually the most efficient way to help a food bank. If you are in a position to make any kind of a financial donation, please do. It is much appreciated, no matter what level. I have thrown out some pretty big numbers in this discussion, but a $10 gift is not a drop in the bucket. That provides several meals for neighbors facing hunger. So, I do want to emphasize that we’ve had very generous contributions, but we still have a gap. We’re not there yet. It is still that marathon. 

Also, food. You can, if you have contacts in the food industry, reach out to your local food bank or to Feeding America to make a donation or to facilitate a donation. You can raise the issue of hunger and food insecurity yourself on your social media channels. You can advocate for stronger federal nutrition programs with your elected officials, and you can find resources on how to do that at

And then finally, on that website, well, you’ll find many things, but one more thing I want to mention is that if you and your family are facing food insecurity yourselves, please visit the website. There is a food bank finder. You can just enter your zip code and find a list of resources that you can turn to today to make sure that that’s one thing off of your list of stresses and worries, that you can quickly get help with.

Denver: And all in all, there’s a lot of different ways to make a difference. Well, thanks, Casey, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Casey: It was great talking with you. Thanks again for highlighting the issue, Denver.

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