Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Alum uses collaboration to put food on tables of Chicago's poor

For Kate Maehr, the summer between her first and second years at the La Follette Institute was a study in contrasts.

She held two internships. The position with the City of Madison fit better with her initial career goals, but her internship with the YWCA set her on a different path. She worked with the YWCA's executive director, who forged a coalition that launched a job-training program to prepare low-income women to become certified nursing assistants.

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Greater Chicago Food Depository Executive Director Kate Maehr (class of 1996) gives U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois a tour of her agency's training and distribution facility in December. They discussed the need for increased funding for federal nutrition programs like those the Food Depository administers.

"I experienced firsthand the power of networking, how powerful a tool collaboration can be — and how well-managed nonprofit organizations can move quickly to address community need," Maehr says.

"While I came to La Follette thinking that I wanted a career in government, the YWCA experience opened my eyes," Maehr says. "At the end of the summer I realized government probably wasn't for me, and I began to focus more on the role that nonprofit organizations can play in addressing need within a community."

The flexibility of La Follette's academics meant Maehr could take classes that fit her interests, including a spring 1996 urban planning course on central cities in which she learned about food systems. While the class was in Chicago for three days, Maehr heard that the Greater Chicago Food Depository had an opening for a director of individual giving. "When I got back to Madison, I contacted them — I was graduating that semester — and the rest is history," she says.

Twelve years later, Maehr is forging her own networks and collaborations as executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which annually distributes more than 40 million pounds of nonperishable food and fresh produce, dairy products and meat to almost a half-million adults and children through 600 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

Becoming development director in 1999, Maehr led the Food Depository's capital campaign, a four-year, $30 million effort launched in October 2001 to build the agency's new food bank and training center. The 268,000-square-foot facility doubled the ability to distribute food. The training center runs programs to help men, women and children gain tools to break their individual cycles of poverty.

The Food Depository is a model for similar organizations throughout the nation and the world. It has been featured numerous times in media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Business Week, Time and NBC Nightly News.

Maehr's commitment has won her recognition as one of Chicago's "40 under 40" to watch by Crain's Chicago Business and as a Leadership Greater Chicago fellow. She is a sought-after leader and speaker among food banks nationwide through the America's Second Harvest food bank network.

She attributes these achievements in part to her experience at La Follette. "The lessons I learned and skills I honed at La Follette — the need to ask questions and to understand the impact of policies and decisions, the importance of measurement and accountability — have been critical to my success," she says. "A month doesn't go by that I don't think about something I studied in public management, microeconomics or quantitative analysis."

"Bottom line — my experiences at La Follette sharpened my commitment to public service, gave me critical tools that I use daily and left me with a passion for building strong and effective organizations that address critical community needs."