Xavier Magazine

Food for Thought

John J. Young labels himself a “meta-physical schizophrenic.” He laughs even as the phrase trickles out of his mouth, but nonetheless, you sense a grain of truth here.

The ebullient Young, a 1967 graduate, is touching on his lifetime philosophy, his affirmation that you should cast as wide a net as possible to discover your own personal mission: “The goal, the aspiration, is to find a way to improve other people’s lives. There’s a practicality in this that’s very appealing to me.

“It’s sort of the way that eight years of Jesuit education has made me this ‘metaphysical schizophrenic,’ ” he says. “It has broadened the way I see and serve the world.”

A philosophy of broadening horizons has carried Young throughout a diverse career, to his current post as CEO and president of what is possibly Cincinnati’s pre-eminent nonprofit agency feeding the hungry, the mammoth FreeStore FoodBank. The organization serves a quarter-million people scattered across three states, and supplies 18 million pounds of giveaway food each year. In the doing, the institution has become the region’s largest emergency meal and services provider.

Young came to the doors of the FreeStore in 2006, after a career path featuring no shortage of singular accomplishments.

He first migrated to Ohio from West Virginia when he was 11. The youth’s dad labored as a boilermaker in a steam plant, his mom taught elementary school. After graduating St. X High School and the University, Young went across town to teach history and civics at Ursuline Academy.

Then a professional divergence bubbled up: The young man stepped into the role as director for a number of halfway houses aiding ex-offenders and drug/alcohol abusers. “I’m sort of a serial job guy,” he readily acknowledges. “I got interested in addiction, and ran transition clinics,” especially one at St. Elizabeth Hospital. “The experience there was just marvelous, helping whole families.”

Finally winding up as an executive for Hamilton County Family Services, Young continued to embrace a single mantra: “I don’t think anyone should EVER feel badly having to ask for help.”

At the FreeStore FoodBank, there’s surely no shortage of folks desperately asking. “We’re so fortunate to have thousands and thousands of stakeholders,” he says of his agency’s donors and support networks. “This is not a company we own. The community owns it, in the richest possible sense.”

As the economy tanked during 2008 and 2009, Young stepped up to face an abrupt shift in the needs, and the needy. Average citizens became the destitute who were starving in the shadow of plenty.

“We see people today asking for help who used to be DONORS, who are now jobless and trapped in upside-down mortgages,” Young laments. “They’ve fallen down five or six rungs on the ladder of economic stability, a ladder that’s taken them five or six decades to climb.”

Young and his agency have responded in multilateral ways: Mobile grocery pantries, immensely successful canned-food drives, and a growing network of 300 affiliate pantries.

Young’s kitchen cabinet at the FreeStore includes a handful of Xavier grads in senior management positions. Young himself is a proponent of streamlined administration and balanced budgets: His executive suite is spartan, a cubicle-sized nook no more expansive than many kitchenettes. It’s a corner office, yes, but the view merely overlooks cracked asphalt parking lots in impoverished Over-the-Rhine, a gritty urban neighborhood still central to the FreeStore mission. (The food bank was founded here 40 years ago by a guy who routed around city dumps for reusables to give struggling families.)

Young admits to consuming a great deal of leadership literature, those corporate how-to’s and highly effective habit lists. But the chief executive’s all-time resource is a paperback copy of “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices From a 450-year-old Company That Changed the World.” “Chris Lowney writes about what a 16th-century Jesuit priest can tell us about 21st-century business.

“I think it is the most affirming book I’ve ever read about principles, leadership and service. It’s about listening to the people you’re trying to serve. That’s what Loyola did, and did pretty well.”

As Young continues on his compelling mission, he ticks off priorities: (A) Recover more overstock perishables from the big-box groceries, such as Biggs, Kroger, Wal-Mart. (B) Convey nutritional lessons. (C) Put meals on the table for hungry families or into the mouths of the homeless and helpless.

“This power of food as a connector has made us think differently (than some other agencies),” Young says. “We see food as the beginning of the relationship we have with people.”

What is truly perishable here are not so much fresh meals, he’s found, but bruised spirits and dilapidated dreams.

Children and young people are a special priority. His Kids Café program has surged, distributing 116,000 after-school meals in the past year. The Power Pack program shipped out 84,000 weekend and holiday food packs to 2,300 children in the same timeframe.

And Cincinnati COOKS! is a national model for employing the next generation. The training program welcomes the unemployed and underprivileged, and – for free – teaches them how to concoct stocks, roux and mirepoix. It may seem a strange brew to outsiders, but the program’s job placement rate is staggering: 80 percent of graduates immediately find work in the restaurant industry.

“When you think about it, we’re using food that was donated, we’re training people with a usable skill for the workplace, and we are producing 1,500 meals a day for kids who would otherwise go hungry.”

It’s a win-win-win all around, a recipe for hope and self-sufficiency with dignity. “You hit one single and score a lot of runs. Instead of going home to an empty cupboard, these students eat.”

While Young, 66, has announced he will retire in the near future, he is executing a well-placed succession plan that includes working with his successor for at least a year. Then he’ll spend more time with spouse Carol, his two children and four grandchildren.

Young confides that he secretly desires the University will find a way to invite him back, to guest lecture or perhaps whip up a favorite burrito in the student cafeteria.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?,” he hints.

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