A 45th Anniversary Interview with Kathleen DiChiara and Cathy McCann

In reflecting on the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s 45-year history, current FoodBank President & CEO Carlos Rodriguez sat down with our Founder, Kathleen DiChiara, and long-time food banker Cathy McCann to get their perspective of hunger in New Jersey and to learn more about how the organization has evolved over the years.

CR: Let’s start from the beginning. We all know the story of the FoodBank’s beginnings in the back of your station wagon. But what moved you to start serving the community?

KD: It goes way back. In the early 70’s, there was great famine in Bangladesh. My sister is a nun, a medical mission sister, and the sisters from her order were there. It was just before Christmas when I heard about it, and my husband and I decided that instead of exchanging gifts with each other or sending Christmas cards, we would make a donation and encourage others to do the same. So that was going on in the background. And then one summer, I took a class at Seton Hall—global action and human relations. There I was, the only suburban housewife, and everyone else was with a peace and justice committee or a religious group from across the country. But from there, I said to myself, “Yes, I am concerned about world hunger, and where my feet are planted is part of the world. Now, let me see who in my area is going hungry.”

CR: Tell us about your first experience distributing food to those in need. What was it like to start acting on your passion for helping others?

KD: The next Sunday at church, I asked the priest if I could ask people to start bringing in food, not just during Thanksgiving time but every Sunday, and he agreed. Then, I gave out my home phone number to everyone in town that I could think of—the local hospital, there was a family service organization, too—and I asked that if they knew of anyone without food to tell them to call me. What I experienced was that no one without food called me. Instead, neighbors and friends called and said, “I’m worried about so-and-so.” One of the first calls that I got was from someone who told me about a man who had lost his job, and his friend was worried about him. I got food together, and he lived upstairs over some stores in downtown Summit. So I went up a back stairway, and when he answered the door and I had a bag of food, he started yelling at me, saying, “Who told you I needed that?” And so I said, “Okay, if you don’t need it, find somebody that does,” and I left it for him. Three weeks later, the man called up and said, “I want to apologize to you. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t support my family, but I’ve got a job now, and I want to help. Where can I drop off some food?”

Not long after, I started working with churches in Newark on starting an Essex County hunger organization. There were various churches and emergency pantries, and I sort of organized them and started collecting food.

“I’ve always wanted people to move away from believing that ‘the hungry are over here.’ No, they’re everywhere.”

I think that my whole life experience, from the very beginning, was learning things that broke down myths about what this type of person does or does not do, so that’s sort of how I got started. I’ve always wanted people to move away from believing that “the hungry are over here.” No, they’re everywhere, and even today that is so.  

CR: When did you realize that your efforts were worth expanding? Do you remember the first time that you heard about food banking?

KD: In the late 70’s, I was working with a network of emergency pantries in Newark, and at that time, the archdiocese had its first African American bishop, Bishop Joseph Francis. I called his office and made an appointment with him, and when I went, I told him that I had organized pantries for Essex County and said that if he would give me the space, I would volunteer to organize an emergency food programs for the four counties that his office served. And he said, “Sure,” just like that. I was so fortunate at that time that I asked for something like that and got somebody to say yes. They gave me some office space upstairs at Essex Catholic, and that was the FoodBank’s first official space.  

While I was organizing the emergency food network, I was in touch with the Philadelphia food bank, and I heard about this thing called food banking out in Arizona. I thought that was interesting because I was getting calls offering me trailer-loads of things. I didn’t have a warehouse, but I always said yes anyway. I would call as many churches and agencies to come and pick up food as possible, and I would give it out in parking lots. That’s when I realized that I needed to start looking for warehouse space, and we moved into the fifth floor of Mt. Carmel Guild Building in Newark. We joined Feeding America, which at the time was called Second Harvest, in 1980. They helped me get some money to start a food bank.  

CR: Tell us, in your own words, why fighting hunger in New Jersey is so important.  

CM: I grew up with parents who were really caring, and I never knew hunger. We always had something to eat, but my parents apparently got food boxes and I never knew it. I was one of nine, and my father had a deli in the Bronx that he lost. Things were really tough there for a while, and people would give us food boxes. I thought they were just being nice because of a holiday or something. I didn’t realize that they were emergency food boxes because my parents never really talked about it. When you have so much and you see others that don’t, it’s heartbreaking. I was compelled to do something to help, which is why I left my job as the first female warehouse manager at Pepsi-Cola to start working at the FoodBank.  

CR: How has hunger shifted from when you founded the FoodBank until now? What are the most striking ways in which hunger has changed over time? What’s stayed the same?

KD: I think that there’s greater awareness of it. There’s also more government involvement but still not enough. When you hear right now about children being cut off from school lunches and people on SNAP no longer receiving their benefits, you see a lack of caring. We faced similar issues, too, when I first started.  

“Anybody can have hard times or be living paycheck to paycheck.”

CM: There’s still a lot of education that’s needed, but I think that more people are aware of hunger and where they can go to help or to get help. There’s also less of a stigma. I think that people realize that anybody can have hard times or be living paycheck to paycheck.  

CR: Is there a moment in the FoodBank’s history that you would consider particularly pivotal?

CM: For me, it was moving into the current building on Evans Terminal. When we went and looked at this building, it was so huge and empty and I said to Kathleen, “We’ll never fill this whole thing up,” and she said “Oh, yes, we will.” And we did. Kathleen was a dreamer, and we got it done. We were able to start new programs and do even more with all of the new space that we had.  

KD: The other thing that, in so many ways, was pivotal to me was when we became involved in Second Harvest, which is now Feeding America. Getting to know people from around the country who were responding to those that were hungry was far more informative than what I could’ve gathered in our home state alone. To be able to call up my friends at different food banks was really a turning point for me. Nothing in my educational background prepared me to drive a forklift or to run a warehouse. I’m a teacher by education.  

I grew up the middle child of three. People used to ask my brother, my sister, and I, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My sister always said that she wanted to be a nurse. My brother wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a lion tamer, and I have been one. It just wasn’t with the big cats. It was tackling big challenges, and joining Second Harvest was part of that. 

CR: How did food, help, and hope come to be the FoodBank’s three main tenets? How are they still relevant now?

KD: Having distributed millions of pounds of food, it’s shocking that more people seem to be struggling now than when I began in 1975. Back then, one person working in a household was sort of the rule, but now for so many homes, two people have to have a job and they still may not be able to support a family. There were many senior citizens that were hungry and situations where someone in the household lost their job. Those issues are still here today, but on top of that, we’ve had a few generations of people growing up in poverty. No matter how far we’re going, there’s still the challenge to get other people involved and to raise the funds to continue this important work.  

“Having distributed millions of pounds of food, it’s shocking that more people seem to be struggling now than when I began in 1975.”

CR: What advice do you have for people who want to become change-makers in their communities? 

CM: I think that they have to persist in breaking down barriers and getting out there to get involved. 

KD: People who want to make a difference need to care for others, but I would also say that you need a good sense of humor. When you’re doing such hard work, you need to be able to laugh things off sometimes.  

CR: As women, what has it been like to build and lead a large organization?  

CM: I don’t know that I feel any extra power because of that. We just did it because it was the right thing to do, and I think that that’s something women feel all the time. I think that women have nurturing sensibilities. Seeing people hungry, especially children, is just something that, as a woman, you can’t stand.  

KD: I think you need a real drive, too. When I was getting out of high school, what was open for careers for women was that you could be a secretary, you could be a nurse, or you could be a teacher. In the food industry, when I was starting out, I can remember attending some meetings where there were only maybe one or two other women. It wasn’t easy being the only women there, even though women were involved in nonprofits in many ways. Many of the nonprofits were related to a particular religion or house of worship that was run by men. There were challenges, but I was very fortunate to have women like Cathy working side by side with me.  

CR: In honor of the FoodBank’s anniversary, what message do you have for everyone who’s made the last 45 years possible?

“Keep the good going.”

KD: Keep the good going. It’s harder out there now for people than it was when I first began. The successes that we’ve had along the way were because of so many people who were generous in sharing their funds, their time, and their talent. Those things are still needed today, and they’re needed as we think about going 45 more years. I owe thank yous to so many people, and I’ve certainly said them over the years. This was a collective effort. I couldn’t have done it without them.