Pantry University: An Interview with Naomi Berkove

Pantry University was a pioneering training program launched by the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s  and aimed at its 600 member pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. It was launched to address the issue of hunger in Cook County through building the capacity of the emergency food network. In this post, I chat with NAOMI BERKOVE, the learning and development strategist who led the effort. 

What was the goal of launching a training program Chicago Food Depository member pantries?

Pantry University was closely linked to the mission of the food bank that aimed not only to provide food for hungry people but also to end hunger in the community. By developing skills and building connections among those who work on the front lines of hunger, Pantry University strengthened the overall emergency food network which was then able to provide more effective support to those in need.

Were there any precedents to which you turned to help set up the program?

A lot of research went into building Pantry University, both personally and collectively. I remember doing a lot of reading and attending presentations and conferences, even seeking advice from a speaker whose book I had read during graduate school. Additionally, the book Corporate Universities by Jeanne Meister was a key resource in both developing the program and identifying other organizations that had models with elements that could be applied to Pantry University. The Steering Committee that was brought together to develop Pantry University toured other best-in-class corporate universities, including Hamburger University in Oak Brook and Harley-Davidson University in Milwaukee. The leaders of those corporate universities generously shared their insight and knowledge with us as we were developing the model for Pantry University.

Jumping ahead to the end, what would you say the program accomplished?

On an organizational level, it enabled food programs to build a stronger foundation so they could be long-lasting resources in their communities. It enabled food programs to serve those in need more efficiently and effectively, putting to better use their money, time, and volunteers.

On a broader level, Pantry University built a more connected network of emergency food providers who were able not only to have stronger individual programs but who also could refer those in need to a wider range of services in the community. From food stamps to financial planning services to free medical clinics, those who came for food learned from people they trusted about other resources that could help improve their situation. By connecting food programs with helpful resources and to each other, it meant a more effective response to hunger.

What resources, human and otherwise, did the Chicago Food Depository have or secure to make a program like this happen?

Pantry University was staffed full-time by a Director, an Assistant Director, and a Registrar. At its peak, Pantry University had a fourth person, which at one point was an intern and at another point was a Nutritionist. It was a great experience to work with such a committed, talented, professional group of people. The budget was modest but it allowed for payment of external instructors for classes. Pantry University also benefitted from a wide range of volunteers who generously donated their time for various programs or events. Pantry University also developed partnerships with other nonprofits in the Cook County area that offered resources as wide ranging as financial management, donor research, facility planning, and computer skills. It also formed partnerships with the City Colleges of Chicago and North Park University’s School of Business & Nonprofit Administration to offer classes in technical and nonprofit management topics.

Is there a story from the experience of Pantry University that still resonates for you?

Whenever Pantry University held its classes at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, we always provided an assortment of snacks during the break. One morning, when class was on break, one of the participants approached me.  I had been responsible for setting up that day, and I had put out our typical assortment of granola bars and cookies, what I thought would be relatively filling for someone who had spent a busy morning in class.  The woman had seen what was available and asked me, “Do you have any potato chips or something?  I’m really hungry.”

While I mentally contemplated the heft of a granola bar vs. the light weight of a bag of chips, I realized at that moment that what I considered to be a hearty snack didn’t necessarily match what she considered to be appropriate for taking the edge off her hunger.  I also realized that regardless of the ingredients, what was really important for her had more to do with social context, upbringing, and plain habit.

It was a reminder for me that while encouraging healthy eating habits is an important social goal, it is ultimately a person’s choice what food they put into their mouth.  Faced with a basket of relatively “healthy” snacks, this woman preferred not to eat any of them because she didn’t see them as desirable options.  It underscored for me the need to be sensitive to people’s individual food preferences, regardless of their circumstances.  There is a basic dignity in enabling a person to select the food that they will actually eat, and the person seeking help at a food pantry is no more likely to eat all the foods in a well-intentioned pre-packed bag of groceries than either you or I.  Appreciating differences and providing options for people to make food choices for themselves is fundamental to showing respect.

You’ve worked in learning and development in senior roles in the non-profit and the for-profit sectors. Does developing learning for the two sectors differ all that much?

There is often a perception that working at a nonprofit means that internal standards are not as rigorous as a for-profit company or that it is OK to get by with “good enough.” Having worked with an Executive Director who was a former Marine brigadier general, I can say that it is a false perception. Without question, our Executive Director ran a tight ship. A nonprofit can be as well run as any company – or even better – and the Food Depository was operated with stronger controls and internal standards than some for-profit companies I’ve seen. A nonprofit can be well run or poorly run, but its nonprofit status does not define its operational efficiency.

Pantry University was developed within these expectations for high standards. In addition to our extensive research into best practices and guidance from a strong Steering Committee, the program was developed with a commitment to quality. Our courses were approved for continuing education through The International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET), a rigorous accreditation body. We modeled an awards program after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award to ensure those programs that were recognized met high standards. Pantry University was honored to receive awards locally, nationally, and even in international competitions for its innovation and impact.

At Pantry University, you made an overt connection between organizational learning and community empowerment. Are there ways that community-building and corporate learning initiatives overlap and inform each other?

The way I see it, learning is like the engine that makes a car run. Whether the car is running down a corporate road or a community road, learning remains a catalyst that can energize and inspire people to do more than they thought was possible. The flavor of Pantry University mixed learning with building connections which is a potent combination. When you reach out into the community and catalyze a group of people who are all working for a cause they strongly believe in – and then connect them with others doing the same – amazing things can happen. Pantry University was able to tap into a community that was doing incredible work, provide the knowledge and skills to do it better, and then introduce that community to others that could help them be more effective overall.

Since Pantry University was started in 2003, there have been other “corporate universities” that have reached out into the community to make an impact. I suspect that the more successful programs have used the same recipe of combining learning with building connections to create transformative results.

Seeing how the corporate workforce is becoming increasingly team-based with strong external networks typically an important ingredient in the path toward advancement, I would offer that the same basic principles can be adapted and applied to a corporate setting. Building skills while building connections may serve a different function in the corporate world, but it is an equally impactful strategy.