Food Gatherers' "Carrot Queen"
by Shelley Daily
From the January, 2019 issue
It's the last day of "Rockin' for the Hungry," Food Gatherers' biggest fundraising drive of the year. Outside the Kroger store on S. Maple, Eileen Spring, bundled in a sweater, puffy vest, and scarf, is chatting with staff and volunteers as 107.1 radio's Martin Bandyke and John Bommarito host one final afternoon broadcast.
A well-dressed older man approaches the group and donates $100. "Woohoo! Thank you!" Spring exclaims, pumping her fist in the air.
For almost twenty-five years, Spring, fifty-six, has been leading the cheers--and the impressive growth--at the food bank and food rescue program serving Washtenaw County. The nonprofit's president and CEO says the county has "both great wealth and great need." About one of seven county residents, she says, faces food insecurity. Food Gatherers is here to help.
Launched thirty years ago by Zingerman's, Food Gatherers started out delivering the surplus food from restaurants and grocery stores to two area churches. Now its north-side distribution center on "Carrot Way" provides the equivalent of 14,500 meals a day to 170 area programs. Food Gatherers also prepares and serves hot meals year-round at its "Community Kitchen" in the Delonis Center homeless shelter, runs a summer food program for kids at thirty sites, and weighs in on local and national debates on affordable housing and hunger.
"We were the gang that couldn't shoot straight until she came along," says Paul Saginaw, Zingerman's cofounder and Food Gatherers' first board member. "She's made it one of the best nonprofits in the country."
Saginaw, who met Spring through a mutual friend, calls the "whip-smart" New York native that "rare individual that was both creative and organized." At a recent event, Spring handed out temporary tattoos featuring Food Gatherers' signature carrot with the word "Forever" emblazoned across it. On LinkedIn, she calls herself the "Carrot Queen."
A first-generation American born to Irish Catholic parents, Spring grew up with two older brothers in Copake, NY, in a resort area nestled between the Berkshires
and Catskills. Her father worked as a bartender, and her mother was a waitress. "They couldn't afford babysitters, so sometimes I folded napkins and did other things as a kid in the back of the restaurant," she says. "My family would've been called food insecure. We were often fed by hanging out in restaurants--it was pretty customary to have food and leftovers around" for workers and their families.
She herself worked as a dishwasher, short-order cook, and waitress in high school and at Hofstra University. No one in her family had gone to college, she says, and "the only reason I got in was because I was sort of adopted by my friend's parents, who helped me understand how to do it."
At Hofstra, she says, she was "like a kid in a candy store ... I loved it!" While completing a triple major in English, history, and philosophy, she worked with groups at "ground zero" of the AIDS epidemic and marched in Washington for divestment from apartheid-era South Africa.
After graduating in 1984, she worked on her history professor's unsuccessful campaign for congress. She went on to organize a successful mayoral campaign in Hempstead, NY, before deciding "I wanted to put my efforts into a mission that was larger than one person and larger than myself."
In the summer of 1986, friends dropped her off in Ann Arbor--"sight unseen," she says--to begin grad school in American Culture at U-M. She earned a master's and spent three years teaching freshman comp and writing to first-generation college students, but left before completing her PhD to join the nonprofit world.
Inside Food Gatherers' warehouse, pallets of canned food are stacked skyward. Spring points out the USDA tuna and peanut butter. "Always in demand!" she says. She's thrilled to see a tower of milk jugs just delivered from Busch's milk drive.
A cavernous cooler and a freezer keep highly prized produce and protein fresh. Seven trucks pick up donated food and deliver it to partner agencies, including SOS Community Services, Peace Neighborhood Center, Hope Clinic, and pantries in sixteen area schools. The $4.1 million operating budget is sustained almost entirely by private donations.
As Spring sips coffee in a conference room, she admits her energy is "a bit depleted" after Rockin' for the Hungry. But the six-day drive met its goal: donations equivalent to one million meals. And it's not the only time she and her thirty-person staff work long hours. Her work ethic, Spring says, comes from her parents: her mother waitressed into her seventies. (She's since passed away.)
Spring lives in the Lakewood subdivision near Dolph Nature Area. In her spare time, she catches every local theater production she can. She's also an "avid Scrabble player" and devoted fan of Bruce Springsteen. The singer "always donates proceeds from his concerts to local hunger organizations," she says--and he kissed her twice at a 1996 Hill Auditorium concert.
Though Food Gatherers runs on private donations, Spring says, government support is "a critical piece" in the lives of the people it serves--and "that's challenged and diminished each year." As she looks ahead to 2019, she says, "we're sort of holding our breath that there aren't any long-lasting policy changes in the safety net."
As a founding member of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Washtenaw County Food Policy Council, Food Gatherers "is deeply engaged in system work," she says, including working with health-care providers. "We have thoughtful and deep relationships with the other players--whether it's affordable housing, or it's working with Avalon Housing to do Carrot Way apartments" next to the north-side headquarters.
Three decades in, she says "We're not done yet ... I'd like to end hunger. I think when I started I thought it was more doable than it is ... Thirty years ago we weren't talking about food insecurity on college campuses." As the organization expands, she says, her biggest challenge is maintaining a funding model that depends on private philanthropy.
Still, running Food Gatherers is "more interesting than a PhD. Issues that most interested me as a graduate student--class, race, political movements--are intrinsic to food security work. It's kind of the same intellectual journey--combined with the satisfaction of feeding people every day."
[Originally published in January, 2019.]
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