Although I believe there are more, the five things that need to be done to address this problem would include lobbying, funding, discussing, debating and collaborating to solve and address the limited access to healthy and affordable food options.
The one thing that I ask, while less tactical, is that people think long and hard about “humanity.” We often get caught up in our own personal issues and in our own worldview about why people end up in the conditions with which they face. I’d like people to remove themselves from that mindset and think about what they would do if their brother, sister or neighbor were in such condition.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alvin Crawford, chief revenue officer at Revolution Foods.
Alvin Crawford, chief revenue officer at Revolution Foods, brings more than 20 years of experience in strategy, sales and thought leadership to help drive the organization’s next chapter of accelerated growth. Prior to joining the company, Crawford served as General Manager for Public Consulting Group’s Education Practice, Chief Executive Officer of Knowledge Delivery Systems Inc., and Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for SchoolNet, Inc. His passion is driven by the need to address equitable access for the neediest among us. Addressing food insecurity and providing people with access to dignified and culturally responsive meals is at the center of ensuring that the basic needs of our neediest are met. He sits on a food insecurity task force with many of the nation’s largest providers addressing food insecurity. Crawford also serves on the Board of Trustees for Metropolitan Montessori School and the National Junior Tennis and Learning in NYC and is on the Board of Advisors for ClassCraft and LearnPlatform, two education technology companies. Crawford is a proud husband and dad of three daughters.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Throughout my career, I have been drawn to transformation and mission; in fact, I earned a certificate in Leadership for Change as part of my MBA. In my education technology work, equity for all was at the center various projects, using data to make decisions and leveraging professional development to improve outcomes for all students. When you think about access to healthy food, the inequity in our systems is quite evident, and that is what drew me to Revolution Foods.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many, but one that I will never forget is the day in March 2020 when most of the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Revolution Foods’ orders went down to nearly zero and, for many companies with 1,500 employees, this would have been devastating. We talked as an entire team about what was going on, why our work mattered and how we were going to make sure children got fed. We made phone calls daily to dissect and understand the situation so we could figure out how best to use our “superpowers.” The entire team rose to the occasion. We executed new approaches, mostly flawlessly, resulting in a transformative impact on people’s lives. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Revolution Foods has designed, produced and delivered over 73 million meals to food insecure and vulnerable people across the U.S.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
There’s nothing like humility to help you evolve. I ran a startup that failed in 2016. I’ve had time to reflect on that adventure, often. Most of what I learned from that experience is about the importance of people and teams. People rise to the expectations that you set. If you have few expectations, they will meet that bar. If your expectations are specific and high, they will rise to that occasion. I learned to set expectations and coach people towards the bar. I learned that if you don’t manage people to an expectation, they ultimately disappoint your expectations because it’s not a shared goal. I learned in a leadership position, (CEO, in this case) that growth and success are not about what we do as individuals, but what we are able to summon within the team. And lastly, I learned that there are environments that are conducive to the work and others that are toxic. We all need to be in environments that enable us to be happy and do our best work. Once you realize where you are, the best path forward is one that enables you to be happy and effective.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am eternally grateful to a man that has been on this journey with me for the last 22 years. His name is Eldred Ellis, a man almost 30 years senior to me. He is an elder stateman who has always given me the straight skinny on what’s happening around me. I recruited him my first year in the business. After a year of begging, he left a big publisher to come to a startup where I ran sales. In all of those years, he has been a key to my personal and professional success. He married my wife and I fifteen years ago. And, he has counseled me through all of the challenges and successes I have had throughout the years. Beyond being a great partner at work, he is one of the most interesting people you’d ever meet. One of the first Black pilots for PanAm back in the day, he speaks fluent French, German, Tagalog and Japanese. He knows and remembers people he’s met from any place in the world and can spark up an unforgettable conversation with anyone. Thanks for making me smile by asking that question.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Leadership is in how you lead, manage, inspire and help people do things that they don’t think they’re capable of doing. I think the three traits that hit home for me are high expectations, commitment, and feedback.
I have always pursued big ideas and goals. In the work I have done, I have always set high goals managed to accomplish most of them because of it. One of inspirational tapes I used to listen to included a saying “set the goal and then you see it.” When you lock onto an expectation, it allows you to develop a plan to get there. I often set goals and then break down how it’s possible to achieve it, which is always through a detailed plan of action. Revolution Foods’ successful and impactful work during the pandemic resulted from setting a goal on how we’d like to get through it and watching the team rise to the occasion.
I think commitment to a goal has more to do with demonstrating to yourself and others that we can get there. I mentioned earlier how important it is to be clear about expectations, but it’s also important to show people how to get there. I’m speaking less to the plan and more to the execution of the plan. Our success is driven by our belief in our people, our expectations of them and the persistence that we show them in helping to get there. I have had the pleasure of working with lots of salespeople that have are now leaders in the field. Many would say that I was tough on them in the early years because I was doggedly focused on making sure they had the tools they needed to be successful. I didn’t let up, and they rose to the occasion. I recently saw one of my early recruits to the business successfully sell the company he was running to one of the industry giants. It’s gratifying to see that success.
Feedback is such a simple thing, but a skill that is often overlooked because it can be uncomfortable. When I was a CEO, my division leaders would often come to me to say they were about to fire an employee due to poor performance. I would always ask, “Do they know how you feel?” Their pause before speaking always revealed a reality that inhibits great performance: feedback. Feedback is not easy, but as a leader I find that the more you give it, the more you get in return. I think all employees want to do their best work, but often don’t know what that is. Feedback allows them to understand what’s working and what to improve to get the best results. Feedback is also an honest broker for both underperformers who need to seek other opportunities in their life and for overachievers who have a higher perception than their skills convey. As long as feedback is tied to competencies, either soft or hard skills, rather than emotional frames, it is one of the most important things that you can give to your employees or teams.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote from my father’s rule book is, “it is what it is.” In his world, it meant “it’s black or white.” Either you did it or you didn’t, save all the excuses. For me, it’s more about perception. I sell for a living. We must understand grey to better meet customer’s needs. So, it’s never “It is, what it is,” it’s always “it is what you perceive it to be.” So, in real life, we often try to understand what people’s perceptions are to communicate and meet their needs more effectively. The nuance is that we all come with a worldview, and the best communication happens when you take the time to understand people. This is one of the biggest challenges we have as a nation today. Too many people don’t realize the importance of taking the time to understand and empathize with others.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
Food deserts are urban communities where there is no access to affordable or quality fresh fruit or vegetables nearby. In other terms, it is a place where there is only access to processed, sugary and unhealthy food. You can buy food, but the food that is available leads to comorbidities and obesity rather than healthy living.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
We all need to eat. The food items we are used to eating can become habitual. If you grow up on mac and cheese and canned fruit with high fructose corn syrup, that’s all you know. Those carbohydrates and sugars turn into what you crave. Those habits create health issues, such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. Such factors then create more risk and susceptibility to other health related issues. Beyond health, a poor diet can lead to lack of energy and poor performance in school or a job.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Sadly, there are a several traceable factors driven by U.S. policy that over a long period of time have resulted in this crisis.
During the Johnson era, the New Deal created suburbs where homes were underwritten by the federal government. Those houses were prohibited from being sold to Black and brown families by federal law. Black and brown individuals were only permitted to live in urban housing complexes with little to no home ownership due to something called redlining, where banks and the government literally drew a red line around communities (lack and brown communities) that included individuals who did not qualify for loans or investment. These communities did not receive or have access to the resources or supermarket chains that were normal in the suburban communities. Nor did these communities have quality education, transportation, jobs or other resources.
The second factor is lobbying. The food lobbying has had a tremendous impact on food policy, especially around labeling and truth in advertising. So, many things that are bad for individuals were not labeled as such. Much of what has historically been advertised as good for you, was actually not great for you at all, especially for kids. If you turn on your television on a Saturday morning, you will see countless advertisements for kids’ cereal that are incredibly unhealthy. However, they promote all of the vitamins and nutrients in the cereal, despite the fact that the second or third ingredient is sugar. The reality is that rich or poor, the deception that is permitted by the FDA due to pressure of the food lobby creates an appeal to everyone. With that said, low income families may rely on these items due to lack of healthier alternatives.
A few additional factors include lack of health education, economic means and habit. Ideally, one’s education would encourage people in food deserts to pursue healthier options. The education systems don’t always meet the expectations that we have, especially in inner cities. When you add limited options and a need to spend less rather than more on food, options like the dollar menu at McDonalds become more appealing than the corner bodega that still have very little healthy food within them. For a child who has grown up on these less healthy options, it’s easy to develop a habit of eating those unhealthy foods that you’ve grown accustomed too. So, even if healthier options were present, for these folks, it may be hard to justify the cost.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Revolution Foods’ focus is working with cities and counties to provide healthy, dignified, and culturally responsive meals to food insecure families and residents. Typically, there are food pantries where individuals wait in line to receive donated goods, which may or may not have any cultural relevance to the people who are receiving those donations. In addition to lack of cultural relevance, participants often receive raw materials that require cooking to make into a meal. Our approach is to work with our partners, including food banks, to provide culturally relevant meals that are ready to heat and serve in multi-day kits for individuals and families. For example, I’d like to highlight our impact in Alameda County, Calif., where we are partnering with local school districts and the County of Alameda to provide seven-day meal boxes for parents that are picking up food for their kids. The school setting feels like a more dignified approach to addressing hunger for those who may feel ashamed to receive help. Our meals are clean label and generally reflect the cultures of the people we serve. Furthermore, they are freshly prepared and delicious.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
There are too many stories we hear weekly regarding the impact we have, but being able to make someone’s day, week or month by providing them with healthy meals is incredibly satisfying. I’ll never forget the story I heard about an NFL player who recants that while growing up, his mom bought a Big Mac from McDonalds and cut it into three for her three children. He realized that his mom didn’t eat. It’s why he gives back today. For us, it’s the realization that we haven’t really tackled food insecurity and in fact, as a society, we have yet to recognize and set the expectation that there should be a safety net under which no one should fall. We’re lucky to be part of solving the problem. Our society would benefit from more effective policy that works toward eliminating food insecurity and allows our most food insecure families to spend money on trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. On the other side of things, by creating more healthy citizens, we’ll eliminate the long-term cost of healthcare created by food deserts.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Although I believe there are more, the five things that need to be done to address this problem would include lobbying, funding, discussing, debating and collaborating to solve and address the limited access to healthy and affordable food options. The one thing that I ask, while less tactical, is that people think long and hard about “humanity.” We often get caught up in our own personal issues and in our own worldview about why people end up in the conditions with which they face. I’d like people to remove themselves from that mindset and think about what they would do if their brother, sister or neighbor were in such condition. Tens of millions of people in America live a life where they have limited access to healthy and affordable food options. It doesn’t matter what color they are or what circumstances got them there. What matters is that no one in this country should live in that position. Our country is wealthy enough to address this problem, together. Think about why, as humans, we shouldn’t allow our fellow humans to be without access to healthy food. The economic benefits are clear. We’d all be a little closer as a humanity by addressing the need for people to have access to healthy food.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?
There are many organizations that are working to address food deserts. At the national level, Feeding America is creating the most impact. World Central Kitchen (WCK) has done a lot of great work around the country on the emergency relief levels of this crisis. There are a lot of community-based organization and policy advocates at the local level also working hard to alleviate the food desert and food insecurity issues. For WCK and Feeding America, it’s the sheer volume of food they’re providing to people that is most impressive. But, to address food insecurity, you need to fundamentally address poverty, with food insecurity being one very important piece of the puzzle.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
To my previous point, poverty is the main driver. Access to jobs, education, healthcare, safe neighborhoods and food, would resolve most of the problems plaguing our society. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, food is considered an important factor of basic needs. I would like to see policies that address the whole, rather than parts, and solutions that include the voices of those that are directly impacted so that they are practical solutions to implement.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I do think that we’ve become lost in the messaging wars that pin people against each other rather than appreciate what makes us so similar. I’m not suggesting assimilation, because I appreciate differences. I hope that people make time and space to begin to recognize that we are all uniquely individual rather than Black or white, straight or gay, religious or not, etc. However, it starts with recognizing that we share similar visions for what we want for our own families and should want for other people. It should be that no one deserves poverty in the richest country in the world. Our collective mission should be to end poverty. Sure, that means that some people that are way behind might get more of a helping hand than others, but our experiences haven’t been equal in the first place. You don’t give a healthy man chemotherapy because someone else is getting it. You apply treatments according to where people’s needs are to get a humane society. More than fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission came out with a set of solutions to address the war on poverty which made significant progress. I suggest we create a modern-day war on poverty. We collectively have nothing to lose.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
My favorite individual is Barack Obama. I met him when he was a state senator during Congressional Black Caucus in DC, but then he became president and much less approachable. He has a vision, the right countenance and an amazing life partner. Given his status today, he not only has the rolodex to make a difference, but also is not hamstrung by being “the black President” in white America. My guess is that there are likely things that he wanted to do to address racial disparities but would have been perceived as him serving the Black community rather than serving all the people. Such issues still need addressing, but back to the question. I’d rather it be the Obamas, rather than just President Obama, because the two of them together are dynamite. There is so much work to be done.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I try my best to tweet on a regular basis to share articles that address topical issues in the world @alvincrawford. My latest activities are always found at www.alvincrawford.com and the work I do with Revolution Foods and information about our mission can be found at www.revolutionfoods.com.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.