By Leslie Barker | Photos by Kim Leeson~
Trisha Cunningham knows how she does her job determines whether people will eat dinner tonight.
“That’s the weight on our shoulders, why we’re driven to do what we do,” she said. “If we don’t execute it properly, people will go hungry.”
Trisha is President and CEO of the North Texas Food Bank (NTFB), a position she has held since 2017. Even back then, it was a formidable undertaking. She could not have guessed what would transpire three years into her tenure.
“In March,” she said, “the whole world turned upside down.”
Perhaps a glimpse at the end results will make clear the jaw-dropping reality of the food bank’s outreach.
From March 20 through November 30, 2020, the NTFB distributed more than 80 million pounds of food and 84 million meals — 69% and 44% increases, respectively, over the same time period in 2019. New clients accounted for 40% of the meals the Food Bank Feeding Network served, last year.
In total, 290 Pandemic Mobile Pantry Distributors served more than 110,000 households throughout that eight-month period.
The food bank even put on some special events, including a September peanut-butter drive-in during which 287,000 pounds of the kid-friendly, protein-packed food were collected.
The largest one-day distribution was on November 14, 2020, at Fair Park. The food bank gave more than 600,000 pounds of food to about 25,000 people, some of whom waited in lines all night to access food.
To put that in perspective, consider this: During all of 1982 — the year in which the NTFB was formed — 400,000 pounds of food were distributed.
For this incredible work, the Texas Women’s Foundation is awarding Trisha Cunningham, the Maura Women Helping Women Award.
“I had never seen lines that large,” Trisha said.
So she took a deep breath. Along with family members, staff, and volunteers, Trisha kept handing out boxes, kept smiling, kept encouraging, and kept making a difference.
Yes, she gets overwhelmed at the need, which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
But, she said, “I’m a very Type-A, very driven person. Challenges are exhilarating for me. What do you do? How do you fix it?”
The questions may sound rhetorical, but she answers them every single day: By not giving up, by channeling her experience, and by surrounding herself with hope and the right people.
“I have a wonderful team, so no one of us is in this alone,” she said. “We’re not perfect. We won’t do it perfectly.
We’re learning. You execute, learn, reapply, execute, learn, reapply. We’re doing the best we can.” She continued: “How can you not be motivated when you see humans wanting to help their neighbors?”
She continued: “How can you not be motivated when you see humans wanting to help their neighbors?”
In some ways, Trisha had been training all her life for this position.
Growing up in rural Kentucky — where she and her brother were first-generation college as well as high school graduates — she understood how food was the most basic of needs. In fact, her family made their dollars stretch by growing their own food.
She went on to work at Texas Instruments. There, Trisha said, each of her positions prepared her for her current role at the North Texas Food Bank.
Her fifth and final position at Texas Instruments involved working with nonprofits around the world to help make communities better.
“I learned that people are people and that the most basic needs are food and water,” she said. “I know if people have access to healthy and nutritious foods, it helps the rest of their lives.”
Trisha served for 15 years on the boards of various nonprofit organizations. She belonged to Leadership Dallas where, as part of her training, she volunteered at the NTFB.
She ultimately met Jan Pruitt, NTFB’s late and beloved executive director, and began taking groups from Texas Instruments to the food bank to volunteer.
As her 50th birthday drew near and she felt called to leave Texas Instru ments, Trisha took stock of her experiences and her expertise as she mulled her next step. “OK,” she remembers thinking, “what do I want to do?”
“I was in no hurry,” she said. “I wanted something I’d be excited about and would be passionate about. I worked to get a plan. I’m a person of faith; no way could I orchestrate that timing without some nudge there.”
Meeting Jan Pruitt through her work at Texas Instruments and through Leadership Women Texas was perhaps the first foreshadowing of Trisha’s eventual career change. The second bit of serendipity happened in December 2016.
That was Trisha’s last month at Texas Instruments; it was also the month Jan announced she was stepping down due to a terminal illness.
“I knew the great work she had done,” Trisha said. “I even wrote her a card thanking her for her legacy, still not even considering I might be her successor.”
But several community members suggested Trisha consider this opportunity. Coincidentally, the recruiting firm for one position she declined was the same firm hired to fill this now-open position at the NTFB.
“It seemed like a great fit and in alignment with my desire to work in an organization that would lift up the community,” Trisha said. “My husband, Greg, is the one who noticed the more people I met with, the more I became excited about the possibility.” So she applied.
According to Trisha, her faith and her family — Greg, as well as her son, Chris; her daughter, Carrie, and son-in-law Zach Hood — center her.
“My family is part of this journey with me,” she said. “My first day on the job, I said, ‘You don’t just get me; you get my family as well.’”
During the huge Fair Park grocery giveaway, her family was all there, handing out food and hope. Carrie is a teacher; during summer break, she and her dad volunteered at least four days a week.
“Knowing they’re behind me and supportive is energizing,” Trisha said.
Trisha also feels the ongoing influence of her own father, who passed away nine years ago.
“Nothing made my dad more proud than my brother and me,” she said. “I think about him a lot. I feel he’s my angel.
He was such an encourager: ‘Just do your best.’”
Trisha continued: “Those words ring through my mind through this crisis: ‘Just do your best. Do your best.’ If you do, everybody else will do their best.”
She keeps that in mind, especially on days the hunger problem seems especially daunting. The corporate world Trisha came from certainly has its own problems, but hunger isn’t one of them.
“If we fail in the corporate world,” Trisha said, “investors get less earnings per share. Well, guess what? People are hungry 365 days a year, and we can’t fail.”
On her office wall are five words that further boost her resolve: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“What we’re doing is loving our neighbors today,” Trisha said. “We’re giving them hope through food. Hopefully that shows love and optimism that they can get beyond whatever their circumstances are. If everybody did that, wouldn’t the world be a better place?”
Want to help? Volunteers are always needed. Click here for more information.
If you’d like to donate, you can do so online here, or by calling 214-330-1396, or by sending a check to NTFB, Gift and Development Services, 3677 Mapleshade Lane, Plano, TX 75075.