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The League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus


Habash earns Democracy In Action award

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The League presented its premiere award to Matt Habash at a celebration tonight at his state-of-the-art facility, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

Honorary co-chairs Evelyn Behm and Melinda Swan shared personal stories about Habash as an audience of 150 community members looked on -- including Habash's family, a number of elected officials, and past DIA awardees.

Supporting sponsors included Honda of America, Limited Brands, and The Ohio State University. Sponsors included AEP and AEP Ohio, Cardinal Health, Crane Group, Doug Kridler Family Fund, Huntington National Bank, Mt. Carmel Health Systems, and Ologie.


Matt Habash, President and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, is an exuberant, passionate person, innovative entrepreneur, social media collaborator, active citizen, and driven to improve as many lives as possible. His total commitment is obvious, and yet he is also a self-proclaimed failure.

“When I started at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank 28 years ago, I wanted to put it out of business, and I’ve failed,” says Matt, referring to his youthful hope that he could end hunger in central Ohio.

Instead, his self-professed failure has created a concept of success that is far more encompassing. The Foodbank’s vision is “to build and sustain a community that makes food accessible to all people.” Matt knew community was the key. Therefore, instead of solving the problem of hunger in central Ohio single-handedly, Matt has been building an astonishing community of people and resources that are helping to serve the hungry now and who are working to end hunger in the long-run.

Young Matt

Matt grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, where his father was a construction electrician. His mother returned to work as a nurse’s aide and in a nursing home when he and his brother were in high school.

Matt had been involved in politics at a young age – in student government, volunteering for a friend’s dad’s campaign, helping campaign for other candidates, and thought he’d like to go to law school. After graduating from Xavier College, Matt came to Columbus to work at St. Stephen’s Community House. It was a transformational experience.

St. Stephen’s is a multi-faceted community center, providing services and fellowship to people of all ages. At St. Stephen’s, Matt worked with youth in the Windsor Terrace housing project. He learned about building and space issues. He had his first exposure to food pantries in its Crisis Center. And he learned how to connect people – how to build community from the ground up.

The idea of law school fell away. Instead Matt would find time to earn his Masters in Public Administration from OSU and his MBA from Xavier.

Matt worked for John Maloney, long-time director of St. Stephen’s and a member of Columbus City Council in the mid-1980s. Maloney created Operation Feed and the Beyond-the-Freeway tours. Matt was struck by the fact that Maloney was comfortable in both board rooms and food pantries.

Six years later, in 1984, Matt became director of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. The Foodbank was young then. So was Matt, only 27 years old with 2 little kids.

Growing the Mid-Ohio Foodbank

When Matt first started, the Foodbank gave out 3 million pounds of food per year, had 10,000 square feet of space, and 5 or 6 employees. Today, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank distributes 40 million pounds of food per year from its new 200,000 square foot facility and has 96 employees. The food goes to more than 550 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, after-school programs, and senior housing sites that provide 76,000 meals every day in 20 counties in central and eastern Ohio.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, central Ohio proved not to be recession-proof, and the Great Recession has had a major impact on the region. Loss of service sector and government jobs hit the area hard. And even the new jobs created in the slow recovery don’t always pay a living wage. Food requests are up by 46 percent over the last five years at the Foodbank’s network of pantries. According to the Foodbank’s website, 57 percent of the people they serve have had to choose between food and utilities; 43 percent have had to choose between food and shelter. Food pantries are opening in suburban locations. Fourteen percent of the Foodbank’s clients are seniors, 40 percent are the working poor, 35 percent of the food requests are from children.

Matt considers his job to be finding food and connecting it to people who need it, and he’s not afraid to try new ideas. The Foodbank is starting to teach crock-pot cooking. They are working with Lifecare Alliance to get fresh produce to seniors who receive “meals on wheels.” They are using the idea of “taco trucks” to take food out to the people. He’s taking advantage of trends in community gardens, urban farming, and locally-sourced food. He is proud that they were one of first charities in town to use social media. It helped them build a network of 50,000 people who help with donations big and small.

For Matt, it’s not just about hunger – it’s about the role the Foodbank can play in the overall health of the whole community. Health care has become an increasingly important part of the big picture. Matt has seen this first-hand as chair of Mt. Carmel Health System’s board, a member of the Health Policy Institute of Ohio, and manager of a small business. His wife Diane’s expertise as a nutritionist and researcher at The Ohio State University has added to his awareness. Together they understand the huge impact that poor nutrition can have on diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even general health maintenance.

Matt has worked hard to create an organization where fresh food distribution is a reality. The state-of-the-art, energy-efficient facility in Grove City allows the Foodbank to collect and distribute perishables, including fresh milk and meat, and an amazing 40 percent of their distributed inventory is fresh food.

The City He Loves

Cindy Lazarus asked Matt to run for Columbus City Council. He was appointed in 1993 and went on to serve for 14 years, half of those as council president. He left City Council in 2007 to run the capital campaign for the new Mid-Ohio Foodbank building.

“Columbus is a great community to live in. People care here,” he says. “Columbus has a kind of Midwestern ‘aw shucks’ inferiority complex,” but he believes that everybody who comes here can’t help but be impressed that it’s such a clean, vibrant city and that the people here are so kind.

“It’s a great place to live, call home, raise kids,” says Matt. Matt and Diane’s children are all grown up now. Their son Justin, an Iraq War veteran, lives in Pittsburgh and is working on his PhD in Philosophy. Their daughter Kristen is a DNA analyst for the Bureau of Criminal Investigation; she and her husband Mike have two baby girls.

Community Building

It’s clear that Matt is a seeker of strengths. He talks about Asset Based Community Development, Appreciative Inquiry, Authentic Leadership in Action, Art of Hosting, Learning Journeys, Opportunity Nation – all philosophies or programs that build on existing strengths and bring people together to make positive change.

For Matt, the question is not just “How do we get food to people?” but “What would it look like to end hunger?” This opens up even more questions: How can we create jobs that provide a living wage? What about seniors? Students? Farmers? “We’ve got to be about systemic change. It can’t just be about moving food.”

“I want to get everyone in the room,” he says, even traditional opponents. “Let’s change the conversation to find out what we can agree on that we want to affect.”

This includes elected officials. Matt finds that people have a fear of talking with elected officials, though some of the contact that exists can be vitriolic. Matt talks about rebuilding the relationships of people with their government – not big government or small government, but good government.

“That’s why community conversation is so important,” says Matt. “We need to stop screaming and start listening – learn to disagree respectfully, and open yourself to learn from the other person.”

Maybe around the dinner table.