22 Jul 2014
Hungry for Change
Rob Zeaske brings an innovative outlook to an age-old issue.Topics:
As CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, a hunger-relief organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Rob Zeaske (MBA 2002) has a clear understanding of what he's looking at: the costs associated with food insecurity in Minnesota ($1.6 billion annually, according to a study by the University of Minnesota) and what it will take to fix the problem ($300 million, with an estimated 100 million meals missed at $3 each).
"We can see the finish line. It's not like we're searching for an unknown technical solution or a cure for something that isn't scientifically possible or known," says Zeaske. "We have a resource scarcity and distribution problem, not a production problem."
That last point is particularly true in agriculturally rich Minnesota. "We've radically changed our supply chain, first to handle perishable goods in supermarkets that are approaching their expiration dates, and now to work even further upstream with growers," explains Zeaske, who never suspected how much his first-year TOM course would come in handy. "Last year we worked with a processor to collect 600,000 pounds of sweet corn that would have been left in the fields to be tilled under. There is a huge opportunity for innovation and creativity in this work, which is part of what makes it extremely fun."
In 2013, Zeaske estimates that Second Harvest Heartland will distribute more than 10 million pounds of crops that otherwise would have gone to waste. The organization distributed a total of 76 million pounds of food in 2012 (26 million of which was perishable), both directly and through a network of nearly 1,000 food pantries and homeless shelters. As a member of Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks, the organization has access to surplus food donations from manufacturers and producers throughout the country.
"The nature of our work means that we have been tightly coupled with the food industry," he notes. "But we are starting to deepen our engagement with the broader business community through new partners like the Boston Consulting Group and American Public Media. We want to make sure that this is not an issue for food companies alone."
Effectively framing the conversation around hunger in the United States is a significant part of his job, Zeaske observes. "It's a matter of helping people see the prevalence and consequences of hunger as well as the possibilities of a solution." An HBS Leadership Fellow at Mercy Corps, Zeaske has also worked at Jumpstart, a language and literacy organization that trains college students and community volunteers to work with preschool children in low-income neighborhoods. "I'm in this work because I've got the heart for it," he says. Now five years into his time at Second Harvest, he continues to find inspiration in managing a $120 million organization with 150 employees and some 20,000 volunteers.
"Right now we're working with a vendor to build an online marketplace that will essentially be a Craigslist of hunger, where restaurants or even smaller entities can post food availability—say, 50 pounds of chicken breasts at a local hotel—and a shelter could pick it up and serve it that night.
"Using technology to capture that abundance, even in smaller bursts, is the kind of innovation that we're trying to drive," Zeaske adds. "It won't benefit our organization directly, but we can support opportunities for capturing the food that we know is out there and making connections between those who have it and those who need it."
Class of MBA 2002, Section A