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Second Harvest Food Bank CEO Clyde Fitzgerald has message for community

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Clyde Fitzgerald is a numbers guy. At least he enjoys reciting them. Two of the numbers he recites most often are 300,000 and 18.

The 300,000 represents the number of people the organization he runs feeds every year. The 18 represents the number of counties in Northwest North Carolina where those people live.

“The problem of hunger is a tragedy in this country, in this state, in this city, that doesn’t have to happen,” he told me during an interview recently.

Fitzgerald is the CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina. Sixty-five people work here full-time. Hundreds of others volunteer time to help the organization meet its goals.

The food that fills the organizations 104,000 square feet of warehouse space in southeast Winston-Salem is all donated: by the government, by individuals at food drives and by area grocery stores just to name a few.

What comes from the grocery stores would be thrown out otherwise. The “best-if-buy-dates” on these items have either expired or are about to expire. But, as Fitzgerald points out, that doesn’t mean the food can’t be eaten.

“Over the last year, we’ve distributed 38 million pounds of food,” he said. “That saved our partner programs over $62 million in food acquisition costs.”

There are 450 of those partner programs. They include church food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Each can send representatives to “shop” in the Food Bank’s warehouses for items an organization needs. The Food Bank even has a fleet of trucks to take the food to those that can’t send anyone.

Fitzgerald knows all about distribution through his long career at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company from which he retired as a top executive. In the early 1980s (while he was still working for RJR), he was among the local leaders who founded the Food Bank to meet a growing need in the community.

In 2008, after retiring from Reynolds, he became the Food Bank’s executive director and then CEO. Most will agree he’s the Piedmont Triad’s leading authority on hunger and feeding the less fortunate.

“We’re talking about the kind of hunger that, when people have it, they go to their cabinet or their refrigerator and there’s nothing in it,” he said.

And the number of people in Northwest North Carolina who need help feeding themselves and their families hasn’t gone down despite the recent positive economic signs.

“The jobs that are being created are two types: high-tech (which many of the people we serve don’t qualify for) and low-wage jobs that are minimum wage and, in some cases, even less. But minimum wage is below the poverty level,” he told me.

What the region needs, Fitzgerald says, are the “advanced manufacturing” jobs in which former factory workers can fill quickly without complex training like, for instance, auto manufacturing.

Fitzgerald was pleased to see the recent push to land the Toyota-Mazda plant southeast of Greensboro. He’s also excited about the possibility of Publix building a 1,000-job distribution center in east Greensboro.

This June, after devoting most of his life to helping others and the less fortunate, Fitzgerald will retire for the second time. His successor has already been named.

But although Fitzgerald won’t oversee the day-to-day operations of the Food Bank, he still plans to remain close by and volunteer as long as he can -- unless the Food Bank goes out of business first.

“Our vision statement of our food bank is ‘healthy, hunger-free communities.’ We will not cease our work until we get there.”

For more information on the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, check out its website.