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Business With a Soul Tackling Food Insecurity

10 September 2018 at 8:48 am
Maggie Coggan
Gerry Andersen is CEO of Foodbank NSW and ACT, an organisation alleviating the stress of food insecurity in the most practical way possible. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Maggie Coggan | 10 September 2018 at 8:48 am


Business With a Soul Tackling Food Insecurity
10 September 2018 at 8:48 am

Gerry Andersen is CEO of Foodbank NSW and ACT, an organisation alleviating the stress of food insecurity in the most practical way possible. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Andersen has a lot of insight into how the food industry works. As a trained food scientist, and a range of roles within major food companies, his aim for Food Bank is to reshape it into a functioning business, but one that has a soul.

In the nine years he’s been in charge of Food Bank, his main mission was to oversee the build and move into a new state of the art warehouse, which has meant 15 million meals per year more distributed within the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales.  

The organisation recently had their work recognised as the social change maker winner in the NSW Telstra Business Awards, which Andersen hopes will push their message and mission to the fore.

In this week’s Changemaker, Andersen discusses the importance of managing good relationships, the war on waste and creating a business with a soul.

What sparked your interest in Food Bank?

I retired in 2006 but I was getting bored, and to be honest my wife got sick of me asking what dinner was going to be that night. One of my mates is a headhunter, and so I contacted him to see what opportunities were around, and it just so happened there were some available for Foodbank. Foodbank Australia is advocacy body, and as I’m more of an operational person than a political person, I was offered the role of running the NSW branch, which was more of a “doing” role.

One of your first jobs was finding a new home for Foodbank. What was that like?

When I first started, the board told me that the warehouse they had was too old and too small, but they didn’t have the money, the land or planning, but they thought I did. I was given five to seven years to make that happen, and we did it in about six. We designed it ourselves, with some help from other people, and we managed to do it without debt and some money left in the bank. It was an interesting challenge because I’d worked at large food companies like Woolworths and Arnotts in a research and development capacity, but I’d never worked in the philanthropic or the not-for-profit area.

Did it take you a little while to adjust to a NFP manager role coming from a corporate one?

Yeah it did. I was always very commercially driven, and one of the reasons that we’ve been successful at Foodbank, is that we run it as a commercial operation. We just happen to have a philanthropic attitude. In the early days we had to run it quite hard commercially to generate some funds to buy a new building and buy the land. When I took over, it wasn’t broken but it wasn’t going anywhere. To give you an idea, in 2009 we turned over about 2,900 tonnes of food, and last year, we did 12,500 tonnes.

From time to time we’ve had to make some hard business decisions, but it was always about trying to feed more hungry people. I was fortunate that I came into the role with maybe the best contact book in the food industry. I had direct contact with a lot of CEOs who I knew well and who would feed suppliers to me, and that sort of relationship helped.

So you know if there’s things where we need a bit of assistance or we don’t quite understand something, I’ve got somebody I can ring and get some advice from or some help.

Gerry and the team at the Telstra Small Business awards

One of your big missions is the reduction of food waste by bigger supermarket groups, how are you going about that?

We’re working with Woolworths, Aldi, Coles and Metcash every day. We get stuff from their warehouses, and we’ve got a reverse logistics program for stuff that might get damaged in stores or warehouses and things like that.

We’ve got a couple of people on the ground who regularly visit their warehouses and people from all of those companies volunteer with us, so at the moment the relationships between all of the retailers is really strong. We also have a couple of farmers that come along and take stuff that we can’t give away to charities. We are also doing our bit for the war on waste,  and last year only 1 per cent of our food was thrown into the bin.

Your organisation is just one tiny part of assisting with food insecurity, do you ever feel overwhelmed and that nothing is going to change?

I think we can do things and we are. We grew 35 per cent last year, which means we’ve fed a lot more people in that time.

I believe we’ve created a really sustainable business model, which will allow us to keep doing what we’re doing. We give away around 100 tonnes of fruit and vegetables each week to charities, and give away about 15-16,000 loaves of bread a week. All of the other product we charge a handling fee of, on average, 35 cents. I think that’s why the government and people like us, because we have a sustainable model, and that’s a core focus of mine going into the future because we’ve got a lot more to do and achieve. Last year we provided over 20 million meals but in the next five years we need to double that. We built this warehouse big enough to do that, so it is possible.

Is there any issue to do with food insecurity that you’re focusing on at the moment?

Something that’s been a big focus for us is the Breakfast in Schools Program. We’ve got over 110 schools in the program but that’s been funded by an external funder.

We would like to be supplying the program for a lot more of the 700 schools in NSW on the disadvantaged list, and so we’ve been talking to various government departments about doing that. We asked them in the last budget year for $8 million to fund a four year school breakfast program, but we weren’t successful. Getting kids to have breakfast definitely makes a big difference in terms of behaviour and concentration. If you look at this school we are doing a program with in rural NSW, the principal would spend six to seven hours a day trying to manage behavioural problems of kids, and most of the time it was because they were hungry. She wouldn’t spend an hour a day now. We are talking to the current government about funding though, so that’s our biggest aim for the next budget.

What would your biggest highlight be so far in the role of CEO?

I remember when we were in the process of planning the warehouse, and the board and I had agreed we were $3 million short of funding. We were at the sod-turning ceremony, and our treasurer announced the government would fill the shortfall, and I tell you what, I had a tear in my eye. That was definitely a good moment.  

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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