Focus Areas

Economic Security
Food Systems
Food Systems


EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE Food bank’s CEO is stepping down Bill Bolling has spent decades feeding Atlanta’s hungry. By Mark Davis A couple of guys drove over from St. Philip AME Church, as they do every week. They backed their truck into the soaring bay doors of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. The two stepped into a room filled with activity — a forklift zipping along a walkway, others sorting food around the corner. And another man, his hair thick and unruly, walking toward them. “Hey! How you doing?” Bill Bolling shook hands with the visitors. He got caught up: How were things at the church? And the fellow who used to drive, what of him? Meantime, as they talked, the business of feeding Atlanta’s hungry went on. Like the city itself, it’s an industry that’s only grown over the years. Much of that credit goes to Bolling, the food bank’s founder and CEO. After three-plus decades of heading the nonprofit organization on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, Bolling is leaving at the end of June. Kyle Waide, the food bank’s vice president of partner operations, is taking his place in an enterprise that feeds people in a 29-county area. For those who have worked with Bolling for years, the change is galvanic, if not surprising. In Atlanta, if big-time charity has a face, it is Bolling’s. It’s a persona years in the making. He is 68 years old, and has been married to a woman he met while attending college. Bolling looks sort of like a better-kept Jerry Garcia, with a salt-and-pepper beard, unruly hair and eyes that flash with good humor. He’s been working on his departure for a year. “I feel good about the process and the future,” he said recently. ‘Liked serving people’ He grew up not far from Charlotte, N.C. Upon graduation from high school in 1965, he joined the U.S. Air Force. Bolling was 17; his mom had to sign the papers for him to go. Bolling spent four years in the service, two as a mechanic who periodically flew into air bases in Vietnam to work on cargo planes. In July 1969, he finished his service and enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, transferring to Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. From there, he moved to Georgia and enrolled as a graduate student at “a little country school,” the University of West Georgia. The university had a renowned “humanist psychology” program. Today, it would be known as a curriculum stressing faith and psychology. The young man was looking for personal and professional direction. “At that stage in my life, I was really trying to discern what God wanted me to do.” He found another seeker. Her name: Haqiqa. In Arabic, it means “path of truth.” That path brought her to Berry College, far from her native Chicago. In 1975, she attended a symposium at the University of West Georgia where she ran into an affable young man from North Carolina. He invited her to a humanist philosophy conference in Atlanta. “I said OK,” Haqiqa Bolling said, “and that was it.” 1 of 5 6/30/15, 7:54 AM They wed, and have been together since. They’re the parents of two adult children. As newlyweds, the couple bought a rambling old house at 10th and Myrtle streets. It was a leap of faith: Bolling co-owned a restaurant, and made money on the side designing and selling silk-screened T-shirts at NASCAR events. Neither enterprise was making him wealthy. “The man I bought it from nearly hugged my neck for taking it off his hands,” Bolling recalled. There, they started what may have been Atlanta’s first “interfaith community.” For Bolling, whose spiritual roots were laid in a Southern Baptist upbringing, the community answered an inner need. “It was a deeply spiritual calling.” Their community, which never had a name, attracted the least and lost — folks with mental-health issues, folks with no money, folks with no place to sleep. They gathered for religious ceremonies that varied each week. They lit candles. They meditated. And they ate. Food, Bolling decided, is a great leveler. “Everybody,” he said, “gets hungry.” In the mid-1970s, Atlanta didn’t have a food bank. There were some soup kitchens, the Salvation Army, and a few churches feeding the hungry. One, St. Luke’s Episcopal, which the Bollings had begun attending, had a free-sandwich program. Bolling began showing up early in the morning to help. For a young man, it was an epiphany. “I decided,” Bolling said, “that I liked serving people.” An idea sparked by the St. Luke’s feeding program grew brighter. Why not create a network of locations where people could get food? In 1978, Bolling began visiting houses of worship across the city, black and white, rich and poor. Everywhere he went, the pitch was the same: Provide space to feed area hungry, and I’ll get the food to you. In 1979, he created the nonprofit Atlanta Community Food Bank. “I didn’t have any food, or a warehouse, or a truck.” He did have energy. He visited the founders of Big Star, then a grocery chain with stores across Georgia and in other Southeastern states. Back then, said Bolling, inventory control wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today; some chains didn’t have a good idea how well individual stores performed. Bolling made Big Star officials an offer: Donate any unsold food to his food bank, and he and his employees would carefully do a store-by-store inventory to highlight which stores operated better than others. He’d give the chain tax breaks; help train employees in improved inventory methods; and make sure to give the grocery chain credit whenever anyone asked the source of its food. Big Star bit Other events were unfolding, too. Bolling and other founders of nascent food banks met in Phoenix to compare notes, share ideas and swap stories. That association, Second Harvest (from “gleaning the fields” in the Bible), evolved into Feeding America. It oversees more than 200 food banks across the country that last year helped feed 46 million people. Their success can be attributed to pioneers like Bolling, said Feeding America CEO Matt Knott. “Bill has not only built a great organization, but has made contributions that helped build national food banks,” he said. Al Brislain, president and CEO of the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, Fla., recalled sending a questionnaire to food-bank executives across the country. One query: Who do you consider a leader? “One person was named twice,” Brislain said. “More than 10 people named Bill.” ‘Create a safe place’ 2 of 5 6/30/15, 7:54 AM Bolling’s is a simple philosophy: Give people food, and you open the lines to communication. It is difficult, he thinks, not to share your experiences with others while eating. “You have to create a safe place to tell your story,” he said. “That’s the way we think about it (the food bank) today.” Bolling smiled. “Along the way, we created the equivalent of a $100 million company.” Last year, Atlanta Community Food Bank distributed more than 50 million pounds of food through a network of 600 local and regional partners. According to latest tax documents, Bolling’s salary is $225,451. There is an economic basis for giving food to those who need it, he said. Some people argue that some folks don’t deserve to eat. Bolling likes to recast the question. “I’ll ask, ‘Do you support better education?’ and they say, ‘Yes,’” said Bolling. Then provide children with good food to eat and they’ll be better prepared to learn, he said. The same fundamental is true for health care. Better nutrition equals better health — and a reduced bill for government health care. National security? A better-fed pool of potential sailors and soldiers is good for the nation’s military. And so it goes. “You can make the case on national security, on education, on health care,” he said. “Or you can come back to the idea that everyone deserves to eat.” Bolling has been an “angel” in Atlanta and beyond, said Joseph Beasley, Antioch Baptist Church’s humanservices director. More than three decades ago, said Beasley, he began searching for organizations that could live up to Christian principles to clothe the naked, tend to the sick, feed the hungry. That led him to Bolling. Antioch became an ACFB partner. In the food bank’s early days, participating groceries only gave away packaged foods; they were reluctant to give away fruit or vegetables because they might spoil, Beasley said. Bolling, he said, made a “moral case” to share the bounty. It was better to give away day-old produce, Bolling said, than throw it in the garbage. Now, “because of people like Bill, good, nutritious food is available” to families who otherwise might go without. Back then, said Beasley, Antioch looked after 50 hungry families. That number has grown tenfold. Bolling doesn’t plan to stay still. There are other commitments, other panels, other organizations. He plans to cut back his workweek from 80 hours to 40. He also has a promise to keep. When they were newlyweds, Bolling recalled, he planned to return to Boone, in the cool, high hills of western North Carolina. There, he told his wife, they’d make a life. The Bollings have never been back. “My wife?” he asked. “She’s still waiting to go.”