A Hunger For Helping

laurier-givingbackMay 29, 2008

Katharine Schmidt profile

For WLU Alumni Magazine, Stacey Morrison

By John Schofield

The seeds of Katharine Schmidt’s career were planted early and have blossomed in amazing ways. As a youngster, she joined a green-thumb gardening club, and by 14, she was selling freshly grown veggies from the end of her family’s laneway, tucked amid the fertile farmland of the Niagara Peninsula. Appointed last year as the executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Association of Food Banks (CAFB), Schmidt’s youthful endeavours revealed her affinity for food and a head for business. But other pastimes may have influenced her future even more. “I was very active in Brownies and Girl Guides and 4-H, all of which instilled the importance of community involvement,” says Schmidt, a 1997 graduate of Laurier’s one-year Master of Business Administration program. “When you look at what I’ve done, what’s really important to me is seeing progress and making a difference.”

In the stubborn battle against hunger, Schmidt is uniquely qualified to make a difference. She’s devoted her entire 20-year career to food – first in government, then in a senior industry role, and from 2004 to 2007, as executive director of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region. Her finely honed leadership skills and sharp business sense are complemented by boundless energy, unwavering optimism, and a strong social conscience. She’s a master multi-tasker, too. She has combined her busy career with regular volunteer work for organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada and Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada.

Today, she has her sights set firmly on a new vision for battling poverty in Canada and reducing the growing reliance on food banks, which now serve more than 720,000 Canadians a month, 40 per of them children. Tim Jackson, president of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and co-founder of a Waterloo venture capital firm, is convinced that Schmidt can make that vision a reality. “It was a loss for this community when she left,” says Jackson, who led the search team that hired her. “But it’s really a gain for the country. She’s absolutely the right person to be leading the CAFB.”

As perfectly prepared as Schmidt seems for her new mission, there was never a master plan, she says. She grew up in and around Ontario communities such as Niagara Falls and Kincardine, not far from the Ontario Hydro generating stations where her father worked as a first operator. Her mother, like many women in the 1960s and ‘70s, was a full-time homemaker. She also has an older brother, who now works for Ontario Power Generation. After high school, Schmidt enrolled in the Family Studies program at the University of Guelph, graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science. She was hired by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, where she spent the next decade working closely with farm organizations in the areas of leadership training, policy development, and strategic planning. It was exciting, says Schmidt, to bring people together to improve themselves and the industry. Simply enjoying your work, she observes, can create new opportunities. “I’ve always felt fortunate,” she says, “that things have come along. If you’re passionate and engaged in what you’re doing, things evolve.”

In 1997, after 10 years in government, Schmidt reached a point in her career evolution where she was ready to broaden her skills and experience. She decided that a grounding in business would benefit her most. After researching her options, she settled on Laurier’s MBA program. The location was convenient, for starters. Schmidt and her husband Les were living in Waterloo at the time, and she was commuting to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food offices in Guelph and Toronto. She liked that Laurier’s intensive, one-year MBA program would help her rejoin the workforce quickly. And she was impressed by the school’s strong reputation for quality and innovation.

It was a great year, says Schmidt. Students came to the program with a wide variety of work experience, and she says she still benefits from the contacts she made. The comprehensive, case-based curriculum gave students a holistic, real-world understanding of how business works. And the professors were not only excellent teachers, but were truly committed to helping students. “They had energy and passion and really brought the learning to life,” says Schmidt. They were pretty stern task-masters, too. “I worked my butt off,” she laughs. “You really had to hit the ground running.”

Schmidt worked hard to help others, as well as herself. “She contributed in a variety of ways in the classroom, but also with her peers, and it shows up in her career,” says Gene Deszca, a professor in the School of Business and Economics and director of the MBA program during Schmidt’s time. “My recollection is she was a brilliant student. She’s energetic, very socially aware, and very able to frame issues to advance the discussion. She has a good sense of humour, too,” he adds. “She was a lot of fun to have in the classroom.”

Already a food industry veteran, and with a freshly minted MBA to her credit, Schmidt had no shortage of offers when she left Laurier. She ultimately accepted a position as director of public policy for Toronto-based Food & Consumer Products of Canada, the largest association in the country representing the food and consumer products industry, including the Canadian arms of global giants like Unilever, Nestlé, and Kraft. During her seven years there, she also served as director of scientific and regulatory affairs and senior director of public policy. It was invaluable experience. But by 2004, her heart was calling her to return to her true passion. “For me,” she recalls, “it was, Let’s get back to people. It was time to focus my efforts on a helping profession.”

Somehow, the universe was listening. Just as she started to cast her eyes around for suitable opportunities, she received a call from a Toronto recruiting firm. Would she be willing to be considered for the executive director’s job at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region? Not long after, she was in her new role, overseeing an organization that encompasses 67 food programs across the region, providing three million pounds of food a year to 25,000 people.

She was the kind of leader the food bank thought it would never find, and she exceeded all expectations, says Tim Jackson. One of her most significant accomplishments, he recalls, was pioneering a project that over three years reclaimed eight million pounds of food that processors in southwestern Ontario would have sent to landfill sites. Sponsored through a $500,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the initiative required Schmidt to approach food companies in the area and carefully negotiate the transfer of unused amounts to the food bank. The project is now being rolled out in other parts of Ontario and has attracted national attention.

Little wonder then that the Canadian Association of Food Banks came calling last year, wondering if Schmidt was willing to take up the fight nationally. It was a tough decision. After years of travelling to her Toronto office from her home in Puslinch Township, just south of Guelph, she had finally cut her commute time. In the end, however, the challenge was too important to pass up. The mission of the CAFB is to reduce hunger across Canada by supporting the country’s 670 food banks from coast to coast. It offers a variety of services, including research and advocacy, food raising and fundraising, and distribution of large food donations through its National Food Sharing System.

Schmidt wants the association to do even more to tackle the growing problem of poverty in Canada. “We live in a country of incredible wealth and beauty, unyet people are struggling,” she says. “I’m convinced there’s a new way we can look at poverty and hunger in this country and look at ways of making progress that we’ve never seen before.”

Creative solutions are desperately needed now. Food banks were once considered a short-term fix. But over the past 10 years, says Schmidt, the number of Canadians using them increased by more than eight per cent. Incomes are falling behind, and misfortunes like job loss or illness can suddenly push people below the poverty line. Some experts fear the problem will only get worse as Canada’s huge, post-war baby boom generation grows older. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Schmidt. She wants to engage governments, social agencies and the private sector to work together to find innovative, long-lasting approaches to ending poverty. The solution starts, too, with public awareness through campaigns like National Hunger Awareness Day, held this year on June 5 (www.hungerawarenessday.ca).

At times, the problem seems intractable, and it’s easy to lose faith. But Schmidt, who likes to re-energize through outdoor activities like cycling and horseback riding, says she derives hope from how much ordinary Canadians are willing to help. She says volunteers contribute an amazing 419,000 hours of their time a month to the country’s food banks, and more than 32 per cent of food banks have no paid staff at all. She’s motivated, too, when she’s reminded of the critical contribution that food banks make. The so-called Walls of Hunger at many food banks, which feature comments by clients on paper plates, are a testament to that. “Reading those, you realize the food bank community is making a huge impact every day on people’s lives,” she says. “Each person that leaves can end up feeling better. A box of cereal will allow a child to have a great day. And that’s what keeps you going.” For Schmidt, that inspiration is the food of life.