New Community Food Bank CEO guiding it through change

Maria Lynn Thomas, who previously spent 25 years in human resources management, helped develop a three-year strategic plan for the food bank

“It’s amazing how life is like a quilt,” says Maria Lynn Thomas, the new chief executive officer of the Community Food Bank of San Benito County. “Every little piece gets woven together.” 

For Thomas, the road to becoming the Food Bank’s new CEO after a 25-year career in human resources management began three years ago when she wanted to teach her son Mateo the importance of volunteerism.

“What could a 6-year-old do? I thought of the food bank, where he could pack bags. I knew Mary Anne Hughes, who was then the executive director. We had worked together years ago and she was a great person; I thought she might give a six-year old a chance.”

Hughes agreed and the two volunteered over the summer months, handing out food on Fridays. “He loved it, from the very first time he went. There’s a culture here that feels so good . . . it’s a really neat group of people who work and volunteer here. We just kept coming back.”

When fall arrived and Mateo went back to school, Hughes approached Thomas with an offer to stay involved and she became a management consultant for Hughes and the Food Bank board of directors.

They worked together on developing a three-year strategic plan for the organization, as well as organization charts, compensation studies, and succession planning – all designed to help the Food Bank keep pace with its rapid growth.

“When an organization grows up from a mom-and-pop, grass-roots organization to handing out food to thousands of people every single week, you need an infrastructure before it starts falling down,” Thomas explains. “And the infrastructure wasn’t set up yet — it had grown so quickly.”

Toda,y Thomas is excited to be the Food Bank’s CEO and to guide it through an unprecedented period of change. “What attracted me was the opportunity to set the vision for this organization, to nurture the culture, and to be able to give back to this community in a way I never dreamed possible.”

Hughes, who retired as Executive Director in February, will oversee construction of the Food Bank’s new two-story facility, which will replace the current leased, aging structure. Thomas will manage day-to-day operations and steer the Food Bank through its three-year strategic plan. The plan’s first year will focus primarily on construction of the new facility, which should be completed in January or February of 2016.  “No new programs — we’ll just do our core business the best we can while the new building goes up.”

“Year two is our transition and stabilization year,” she adds. “We’ll move in and work out the kinks for how we operate in the new facility. Year three will be our expansion year, adding new programs that we envision with the new facility.”

The upcoming move brings “exciting possibilities,” although Thomas stresses the need for careful enthusiasm. “When you’re spending donated dollars, it’s even more motivation to make sure we’re doing the best we can with every dollar.”

Thomas, who moved to San Benito County in 1994, says she draws from 25-year career in HR management, which she cites as “an incredible advantage” to assuming the CEO role. Many of her previous organizations experienced rapid growth and needed to develop or rebuild an infrastructure – experiences that parallel the Food Bank. Even before her career began, life was preparing her for her new role. In high school she was a summer camp counselor and taught cooking classes for kids to get them interested in nutritious meals – something that’s already planned for the future commercial kitchen at the new facility. 

On a personal level, Thomas long ago learned to change her eating habits due to severe food allergies, viewing food more as “medicine that can heal the body, rather than simply what tastes good or what I feel like today.”

Having escaped an abusive marriage in Indiana, Thomas also hopes to serve as a role model for Food Bank clients facing similar struggles. “I know what it’s like to be down at your lowest level and not want to wake up the next day,” she notes. “Some of our clients come in at the very bottom of their lives, during incredibly difficult times . . . and I’ve been there, and believe that they can overcome it.”

Thomas explains that no two Food Bank clients are alike – each has their own story, from families working two to three jobs to seniors living on a small Social Security income, and to layoff sufferers and children of low-income families.

Such stories are a daily occurrence in Hollister, where a low-paying agriculture job market makes it especially difficult for many families to make ends meet due to the area’s high cost of living.

At the same time, Thomas points out that the region’s rich agriculture industry allows the Food Bank to hand out fresh, healthy produce with no preservatives – something that other food banks across the nation would “die for.”

Two months into the job, Maria Lynn Thomas quickly answers when asked what she enjoys most about her new role. “It’s the people — meeting all the different partners that make the Food Bank what it is today. The staff, the volunteers, the donors, agency partners, and government partners have been awesome. Every time I turn around, someone is saying ‘welcome’ or ‘what can we do to help you in your new job?’ This is a great community.”

Even better, her son Mateo still comes out one afternoon a week after school to help the Food Bank office with making copies, scanning documents and other needs. “He still loves coming here,” Thomas says with a smile.

– This story was written by Elrond Lawrence for the Community Food Bank and shared with permission from the Food Bank. He is a writer, photographer, and PR consultant based on the central coast. He grew up in Southern California and earned his degree in communication from California State University, San Bernardino. Elrond is a confessed media junkie and San Francisco Giants baseball fan. He lives in Monterey County with his wife, Laura; daughter ,Kathryn, and three cats.

BenitoLink Staff