Every day he goes to the office and stares face-first at poverty and need — and he’s never felt so fulfilled in his life.
Working at the Utah Food Bank was never Jim Yorgason’s dream job, it’s just turned out that way.
His dream job was television, and that came first. Born in Ogden in 1951, Jim and TV grew up together. He majored in communications and business at Weber State and then forged a successful behind-the-cameras career in broadcasting. At KSL in Salt Lake City he first worked as a technician, then as a salesman, and finally as vice president and general manager of the station, overseeing the operation during the 2002 Olympics.
TV was so good to him that by age 55 he figured he could afford to retire, so he did.
He headed off in the direction of the first tee. His vague rest-of-life plan was to play golf five days a week and sort out the rest.
But the easy life was too easy. He missed the frenetic day-to-day pace of making deadlines, of managing people and projects, of producing something worthwhile. Worse yet, his golf game didn’t get any better.
So when the Utah Food Bank asked if he’d be interested in coming out of retirement to work as its COO, even though he knew next to nothing about operating a food bank, he answered, “Why not?" That was five years ago. Today, at 63, Jim is the Utah Food Bank’s CEO — he moved up from the COO position a year ago — and its No. 1 cheerleader.
With the zeal of a convert, Jim sat down recently with the Deseret News to talk about what he does, why he does it, and the business of trying to make sure that every day everyone in the state has enough to eat.
DN: Thank you for the time today. It would appear in your case you may have landed the retirement plane a bit early.
JY: It’s true, my decision to retire at 55 and live the great American dream was a bit precipitous. I found that I could play golf once a week but I couldn’t do it four or five days a week. I was looking for ways to fill the day. At 57 I thought this is madness. An opportunity presented itself. They were looking for a COO at the Food Bank. I didn’t know much about what a food bank did, but they seemed to think I had some energies and expertise they could use.
DN: So you were both taking a flier?
JY: They certainly took a chance on me. What they were looking for was help in focusing and refining the operation. I felt I could contribute there. But I can tell you it was a steep, steep learning curve. This wasn’t a world I’d spent much time in. I’d never been hungry a day in my life. In my past life at KSL we supported the food bank and we’d come out and sort product, so I had some experience with the basics. But as to the scope of it, I had no idea. We all intellectually know there’s a problem, but until you get into the game you can’t see it.
DN: Just how big is the demand for food in our state?
JY: Over 440,000 Utahns, 17 percent of our population, regularly face hunger. One in five of our children live in a world that is referred to as hunger insecurity. That means they’re unsure where their next meal is going to come from. We distributed almost 37 million pounds of food this past year. That’s a lot. The majority of that we secure and distribute to 130 partner agencies around the state, in all 29 counties, that then get the product to the end users.
DN: The Utah Food Bank is no small operation.
JY: We have 90 full-time employees and the equivalent of another 50 full-time employees in volunteers who come in for regular shifts. In addition to that, there is hardly a time in the week that our volunteer area doesn’t have civic groups, social groups, church groups or Boy Scout groups of some sort who come in and help out, both in Salt Lake, where we have a 90,000-square-foot operation, and St. George, where we have just a little less than 30,000 square feet. Nearly every day someone comes in and sees what we do and says, “I had no idea the size and scope of this operation.”
DN: What has been the biggest eye-opener for you?
JY: Just the extent of the need. I’ve seen parts of the state I didn’t know existed. I was pretty familiar with I-15 and Lake Powell, but it’s so much bigger than that. I hadn’t seen Monument Valley until last year. I came around the corner and expected John Wayne to come riding around the mountain. We were down there with our manager from St. George, Linda Trujillo, and went to a place called Five Points. It’s not on a map, it’s just referred to as Five Points. Linda knew of a need and called it to everyone’s attention. We saw a trail of dust coming toward us and eventually a pickup truck showed up and a Native American couple was there to pick up a box of food. They were so thankful and then they disappeared. It’s just a humbling situation.
DN: Can you tell a hungry person by how they look?
JY: No. I think it’s human nature for people to look at others and think they don’t need it. I was at a pantry early on and a woman and some kids were getting out of a reasonably new, fairly expensive SUV. Someone made the comment that they don’t need this if they’re driving that. Then someone else pointed out that we didn’t know if that was their vehicle, or if it was about to be repossessed, or a hundred other things. We didn’t know their back story. Our role isn’t to be food cops or to judge. That’s the big lesson I’ve learned. Don’t be judgmental.
DN: What has been the biggest surprise for you since taking over as CEO?
JY: Sometimes people don’t want to recognize the hunger they have in their area. They don’t want to believe that they have people living in their cars not far from downtown in such-and-such a place in Utah. I don’t want to name names, but some people in the state are in denial about that. That’s surprised me.
DN: Your biggest worry?
JY: People in our state are very generous with their time, food and money. We exist because of their generosity. I’m fearful of what we refer to as donor exhaustion, where they give and give and see the economy is improving and might have the perception that that’s enough. Our numbers are not diminishing in our requests for food. Unemployment is down, but those numbers aren’t trickling down to the people in need yet. We still need all the help we can get.
DN: What about the Utah Food Bank makes you the most proud?
JY: The recognizable brand that’s been developed. I think that’s our greatest strength. People trust us and what we do. Less than 5 percent of our costs are administrative and overhead; 95 cents of every dollar goes to product distribution. We’re very proud of that. We can look anybody in the eye if they give us a dollar or a million dollars and say we handled that well and we can show them how we did it. We work hard to get that loyalty and keep it. You win people over one or two at a time, but you lose them in droves.
DN: How would you describe what this job has meant to you personally?
JY: I was given a tremendous opportunity in my previous career and now I’ve been given another tremendous opportunity. This one touches deeper in your soul. This has been a 180-degree turn for me. I was always proud of our product at KSL, and when you’re in the media you tend to think of all the good you’re doing, and there is a lot of good done in the media. But I got here and found a new dimension to what doing good means. I go home at the end of the day and go, wow, I’m really involved in doing good now. There are several re-treads here like me, retired people who have taken the expertise and knowledge they gained in their careers and have brought it to the food bank. There is a deep satisfaction that comes with doing this work, the kind you don’t get in the paycheck.
Photo courtesy of the Deseret News.