“My mother never threw away a leftover. Never, never,” recalls Deborah Flateman. “I learned from her that there’s a way to recycle food into other edible dishes. So, why would you ever throw it away?”
That philosophy should serve her well as the recently appointed CEO of the Maryland Food Bank (MFB). You see, Flateman hates the idea that someone somewhere in Maryland might be hungry. She takes it personally, the way grandmothers do when they fear someone might leave their house without having a fourth helping of mashed potatoes.
Except that Flateman isn’t just feeding one family—she’s feeding thousands. And it’s still not enough for her.
In fiscal year 2006, MFB moved about 14 million pounds of food, says Flateman. Her goal is to boost that number six times over.
If it sounds like a big job, well, that’s because it is. Last year, the Cleveland Food Bank moved 19.5 million pounds of food, and The Greater Chicago Food Depository put out 40 million pounds. By contrast, Flateman wants to distribute 84 million pounds of food.
“We are talking about people being hungry,” Flateman counters. “People who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. Like the city of Baltimore having a lot of potential, that’s how I see the food bank as well.”
Arriving at MFB back in February, Flateman replaced the organization’s longtime director, Bill Ewing, who retired after 28 years with the organization. But she brought a distinguished track record of her own, having spent 10 years at the helm of the Vermont Food Bank.
Early in her career, Flateman found her way from restaurants to nonprofits. “I knew that this was my niche,” she says. “There’s nothing better than going home at night knowing you’ve changed the world and haven’t just produced another widget.”
In Vermont, she found many of the same problems as Maryland, Flateman points out. “A lot of the same demographic exists. [There are] lots of poor working folks,” she says. But the challenge comes from the sheer number of people living below the poverty line in Maryland. “In Vermont, there are roughly 67,000 people at or below the poverty line,” she says. “Here, it’s well over 500,000. Just by volume alone, it’s a much bigger job.” (The MFB serves about 370,000 of those, with the Capitol Area Food Bank picking up the rest in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties.)
Flateman speaks with confidence about her plans for the MFB. Her experience, passion, and dedication are evident in the way she talks of what lays ahead for the nonprofit.
It’s no small feat, but using several successful programs she brought with her from Vermont, Flateman has already begun to put her stamp on the MFB.
First, she started raising funds for a commercial kitchen that could be used for a community kitchen program. Set to kick off in summer 2008 after the construction of a new extension to the Baltimore offices, the program is a culinary-based training program for low-income people. Students will recycle donated prepared food from large institutions, such as local hospitals and colleges, to produce heat-and-eat meals. Those meals then become inventory for food shelves and soup kitchens. “It kills a million birds with one stone,” Flateman says.
Since coming to town, Michigan native Flateman has quickly settled into her Fells Point home. And with a life that revolves around food, it’s no surprise that she’s already heavily sampled local cuisine and already haunts local eateries, like Fells’s Louisiana Restaurant.
But what draws her to places like Louisiana is more than her passion for food—Flateman is an avid jazz fan and singer. “The one thing that is really missing in my life right now is music,” Flateman says. “That is really the essence of who I am and I miss making music. I need to find some good musicians to start working with and do a little singing.”
The compassion she has for the people she serves is evident. “She is extraordinarily client-oriented and client-sensitive,” says George Schenk, founder and president of American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vermont, which produces all-natural pizzas. Schenk is a member of the Vermont Food Bank board of directors and has known Flateman since 1998. Schenk says that Flateman is committed to making interactions with clients as positive and respectful as possible. She doesn’t just treat them as a mass faceless unit. She realizes that these people have busy lives and different tastes.
“I was brought up to really value food and I’m dead serious about that,” she says. “I think it’s something that we’ve actually lost in our society. I’d love to see more kids get exposed to the value and the power of food. That it takes a little amount of effort to eat good, nutritious food. That local food is better than food that isn’t local. That we should be supporting our local farmers.”