Ron Karp of Forestville’s Food for Thought wins a North Bay Business Journal Nonprofit Leadership Award
Professional background: Nonprofit leadership
Education: Georgia Institute of Technology, Bachelor of Science degree in information and computer science
Number of staff: 29
Describe your organization: Food For Thought is a countywide nonprofit organization based in Forestville that provides healing food and nutrition services to more than 1,000 Sonoma County residents who are affected by serious illnesses and are at risk for malnutrition.
Comprehensive nutrition services include healthy groceries (enough for 21 meals per week), prepared meals, nutrition counseling and hands-on healthy cooking classes. Food For Thought’s services increase the health of clients, reduce food insecurity, decrease costs to the health care system and improve the lives of thousands of individuals living in Sonoma County.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: I grew up in Atlanta and pursued my interest in computers by getting a degree in computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology.
After graduation, I helped my father computerize his large wholesale business in Atlanta. I had fond memories of San Francisco and California from a family trip as a kid, and that along with career opportunities led me to move to San Francisco in my mid-twenties.
In addition to my career, I was also interested in environmental causes and volunteered for several nonprofit environmental groups. One of my volunteer activities was organizing retreats, and this eventually led me to change careers and move to Ocean Song Farm & Wilderness Center in Occidental, where I became executive director. Five years later I took the executive director position at Food For Thought.
I have always had a passion for learning new things, and a commitment to quality work. While at Ocean Song I learned how to grow food, and I had a ½ acre garden full of vegetables, berries, and 15 fruit and citrus trees. I also have a love of music and have played horn and keyboard my whole life.
What is your role in the organization?
How has your organization been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Very early in the pandemic we had to make major changes in our operations and activities. We cancelled our regular food drives at grocery stores to protect our volunteers and shoppers, and postponed our gala event scheduled for June.
In late March, we made the decision that it would be too risky to use volunteers in our facility and kitchen, and began serving our walk-in clients from their cars in the parking lot. We hired temporary staff to fill in for the volunteers who worked in our facility and kitchen. As the pandemic worsened, we cancelled many small events and decided to make our largest two events virtual.
The impact to our income was expected to be close to $500,000, and the added staff in the facility and kitchen cost about $25,000 per month.
Fortunately, we were able to make up for most of the increased expenses and loss of income with a PPP loan, foundation grants, county emergency funds and very generous support from our donors. Despite this support, we are still in critical need of funding to continue our services in the coming months.
What are the ways your organization responded to increased demands for services, and fiscally, in what has your organization been forced to adjust?
To meet the increased need, we made substantial changes to increase the efficiency of our order processing and delivery systems. We had to reduce the amount of food choice offered to clients so that orders could be assembled quickly and allow us to serve more people.
We also had to cancel our in-person congregate lunch program and group cooking classes, though we are still offering lunch items via curbside pickup or delivery, and offering phone and online nutrition education.
What achievement are you most proud of?
In May, the Public Health Department asked us to serve a family of eight who had all tested positive for COVID-19.
We decided to serve the family, even though FFT did not have a program that fit this need. After fully understanding what this family was experiencing, we decided to create the COVID-19 Nutrition Program to serve county residents who test positive for COVID-19 and are at risk of malnutrition.
With so many residents testing positive, this program has now served over 1,000 people, with the vast majority being Latinx. This is an amazing service that provides not only nutritious food, but necessities such as diapers, hand sanitizer, masks and toilet paper. We’re helping to serve a community that has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The program also helps ensure the safety of the wider community by enabling these families to quarantine while infected.