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Here to Help: Karen Joyner ’84 strives to solve food insecurity

May 22, 2019
By Noah Robertson '19

Fighting Hunger: Karen Joyner '84 is the CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank located in Hampton, Virginia.

When the accounting director of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore decided to retire, Karen Joyner ’84 had a feeling that she should apply for the job. Working in an executive position at Dollar Tree corporate headquarters at the time, Joyner had served on the food bank’s board of directors for several years. Losing sleep for days while considering the possibility of leaving Dollar Tree, she couldn’t shake the feeling.

Joyner wanted a sign.

Then at church the next Sunday, while Joyner sat preoccupied with her career decision, a couple walked up to the altar and thanked the congregation for donations to the food pantry at the church. Joyner left knowing exactly what she would do. That was her sign.

“I called a good friend who knew the food bank as well as Dollar Tree and he asked me if there was any reason not to apply,” Joyner said. “There wasn’t, so I chose to follow my heart.”

She applied, got the job, and stayed for nine years as the CFO. Then in 2014 Joyner became CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank located in Hampton, Virginia.

For over six years, Joyner has directed the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank, trying to translate their limited resources into as much good as possible. Instead of simply solving immediate hunger, she and her staff work to address food insecurity — lacking reliable access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle.

One of seven food banks in Virginia, and nearly 200 in the U.S., the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank serves almost 150,000 people each year. Last fiscal year, thanks to a combination of dedicated staff, donations, and almost 7,700 yearly volunteers, the food bank distributed more than 10 million meals. Given that the greater Virginia Peninsula features the highest level of food insecurity in Virginia, the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank’s mission is particularly valuable.

“There’s nothing more important than feeding people,” Joyner said. “You never know what a few bags of groceries can mean to someone.”

Unlike many other food banks, the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank’s building was built for its current purpose, which makes it safe, sturdy and efficient. There’s a reception area in the front, with a surrounding string of offices and classrooms, but the main event takes place in the back. Behind those walls, the food bank has an enormous Costco-like storage area, holding over one million pounds of food at any point in time.

There’s food everywhere: produce, meats, snacks, non-perishables, even some desserts, though Joyner prefers the healthier options. There’s a kitchen — which Joyner said is the cleanest around because food safety is critical to their mission — where culinary professionals train members of the community to cook and learn proper job skills so that they can find employment and become self-reliant. Volunteer-organized food boxes and bags line the rafters, all ready for distribution. Other volunteers in the back sort through donations, checking to make sure everything’s up to code (again, it’s all about food safety). Meanwhile, in the center, an enormous warehouse hums, containing a large refrigerator area and a large freezer area. Their monthly utility bill is $5,000.

The food bank accepts any and all donations, including the weird things. They’ve received blueberry Coca-Cola, pickled green beans, seaweed chips, horned melons, and even half a pig more than once. The bottom line is that everything goes to use. With a yearly cash operating budget of $3.5 million, everything has to.

One of the biggest misconceptions about food banks, Joyner said, is that some expect them to be the central place people come to when they’re in need. While this is true to an extent, the food bank acts more as a distribution center than a food pantry — collecting, organizing and packaging donations so that local partners can come and pick up food they will distribute face-to-face. Still, Joyner said, if people come to the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank directly, they never leave empty handed. They always leave with a significant amount of food and referrals to partner agencies closer to their homes for the next time they may need a little help.

It’s rewarding to hand out food in person, Joyner said, but there’s also enormous value in administration. Someone has to watch the budget, organize the volunteers, manage distribution, raise awareness — these tasks may not be as gratifying as on-the-ground work, but everything contributes to the same cause.

Office work, though, doesn’t mean Joyner is short on more than a few good stories.

She remembers one in particular from a while ago, when a young couple walked into the lobby with twin babies. Joyner happened to be walking through, saw them, and hoped they weren’t in need. They were.

“Can you help us?” they asked very meekly.

“Of course,” Joyner replied. “That’s what we’re here for,” taking them to the back and telling her staff to give them as much as they could. Walking back, Joyner started to cry, seeing a family so young with so little. When a member of her staff stopped and asked what was wrong, Joyner told her the same.

“But isn’t it nice that we’re here to help them,” the staff member asked.

Joyner paused, thought for a few seconds, and said “Yes, yes it is.”



Joyner is one of two William & Mary alumnae who lead food banks in Hampton Roads. Ruth Jones Nichols '96 is CEO of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore.