Paul Ash, the executive director of the San Francisco Food Bank, spent the majority of his working life in nonprofit management. But his passion for food distribution began when he was in college, and after a 20-plus-year career at the Food Bank, his appetite for feeding the hungry is still alive and well.
Tell us about your background.
I’ve been here at the Food Bank for 22 years. The issue of hunger and food production and distribution has really been important to me for a long time. In college, I studied agricultural economics and made a pretty quick conclusion that hunger in the United States was not something that was a food-production problem; it’s more of a distribution problem. We are such a rich agricultural country. And especially here in California ... there is really no reason for anyone to go hungry.
How did you get started collecting food for the hungry?
In college ... and both of my grandparents were farmers. They were in the Midwest, and they were not large farmers. They were subsistence farmers who would grow what they ate and buy the things they couldn’t grow for themselves. So I’ve sort of seen at some level the range of ways that people feed themselves.
What or who is your greatest inspiration?
I thought about that. It was a professor at UC Davis. His name was David Hansen. He was an agricultural economist, and he would spend his summers working in less-developed countries helping develop farming techniques. Just seeing him do that every year, giving that time to make life better for other people, was pretty inspirational.
What is the Food Bank all about?
The Food Bank is, I think in the United States, really the most effective way for a charity to get food out. For every dollar we raise, we’re able to distribute $6 worth of food because we can get so much product donated.
After the organization’s last event, how close is the bank to reaching this year’s goal?
We haven’t seen the numbers yet, but it’s going to exceed its goal. But the overall goal of the Food Bank is to make sure we feed everyone in San Francisco ... [and] we still have a ways to go.
It sounds like there is a great need for this kind of organization.
I think there really is. When we provide food to St. Anthony’s, Project Open Hand and Glide ... when I talk to them, it’s, “Is there anything else you can do to help us?”
How would you have reacted as a teenager if someone told you then that you would be the executive director of the Food Bank?
I was a pretty happy-go-lucky teenager. I would’ve probably said, “Hmmm, that sounds all right.”
You’ve had a lengthy career at the Food Bank.
How many more years do you have left in nonprofit management?
It really is a privilege to do this work. We have a terrific staff, and it’s a real privilege to lead them. How long do I have? You know, I don’t know. I still have a lot of passion and I still have a lot of energy.