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Meet Willy Elliott-McCrea: Food Banker & Anti-Hunger Advocate

February 27, 2020

Willy Elliott-McCrea began his food banking career in 1978, as a warehouse manager and driver. From assisting community members and managing intense program acceleration in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and later the 2008 recession, Willy has ushered the food bank to its present-day iteration as a mighty alliance between food insecure neighbors, community volunteers, food donors, staff, and board members. In addition, Willy was founding president of CA Food Banks from 1995-1998. We are proud to have Willy as the new(ish) chair of our board of directors. Now, meet Willy!

You’ve spent an impressive 32 years in food bank leadership. How did you find yourself working in the anti-hunger sector?

Somewhat accidental. After studying Political Science in College, and holding a couple of factory jobs before and after, I had the opportunity to join Food & Nutrition Services, Inc. which operated The Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, WIC and a number of others. In 1978, I was hired as Warehouse Manager / Driver and a few months later took on Purchasing as well. I was promoted to Food Bank Director in 1988 and became CEO in 1993.

Can you speak to the evolution of food banking over the course of your career?

Since I started working at the Food Bank, it has changed locations 4 times! Finally, in 1986, we moved to our current location in Watsonville and were able to put in docks, pallet racks, and around 10 years ago, a larger cooler and freezer.

During the 90’s, I was your typical “Mikey Food Banker.” (Mikey takes anything, Mikey distributes anything!)

Before 1995, advocacy was mostly seen as “mission creep.” And then the food bank network had a major Aha! moment, recognizing if our purpose is to be a safety net for those falling in between the cracks of the federal food programs, then advocating a strong frontline of defense was “core business.” Without a strong frontline, a safety net is ineffective.

Nutrition banking was born 10 years later, around 2005. Many of us realized that our biggest opportunity to end hunger and poverty was to break the cycle of food insecurity and chronic disease by increasing access and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. By increasing fiber in our participants diets, we were setting them up with the opportunity for greater health and self-sufficiency. Given that U.S. healthcare costs have tripled over the last 20 years, from $1 to $3 trillion a year. Our greatest opportunity for value add is to improve the health of our communities through good nutrition.

Quality over quantity. In 1988, I was responsible for a five-county area and today our food bank is able to focus all of our attention on serving Santa Cruz County. Our county has a population of 250,000 people. Our food bank has become able to provide deeper programming through focus.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

There are four that really stand out:

  • In 1989, during the terrible Loma Prieta Earthquake, we were ground zero for disaster relief (epicenter was five miles from our warehouse) – scaling services six-fold for the first month and doubled ever after.
  • Over the years, we have built a very strong reputation and network of partners from every sector of our community.
  • Of the food we distribute, 87% is nutritious and more than 60% is fruits and vegetables!
  • As Founding President of California Association of Food Banks from 1995-98, I played a small role in helping the CA Food Banks has become what it is today.


Describe some challenges you have faced in your role and how you’ve adapted to them.

Lots of financial challenges! That’s why we became good fundraisers with such limited staff.

What do you find most gratifying about your work, or what excites you about it?

One of the most gratifying thing for me has been our Nutrition Education Programs. How we have been able to work with our volunteers from the community and the positive impact it takes on their health, including activities such as Nutrition Support Groups and Cooking Clubs.

Another thing that excites me is the opportunity we have to help the next generation understand nutritious food, and to grow healthy and be successful!

What has surprised you over the course of your career?

Everything about this work and the world we live in has changed so dramatically over the years it has forced me to stay flexible and open.

How can we make food systems more equitable?

Average shelter costs have increased 64% over the last five years. For so many people it’s hard to have enough financial resources to take care of housing and at the same time invest in good nutrition.

We provide an average of 300 pounds each year of fresh fruits and vegetables (much of it organic) to 17,000 households. It’s our ability to provide fresh produce and basic staples to whoever needs it, no questions asked, that is so critically important. We are working hard to fight stigma by creating different ways of reaching out to everybody, through free farmers markets, cooking clubs, and nutrition support groups.

What are some of your passions outside of work?

  • Reading fantasy or historical fiction.
  • Gardening; in my backyard you can find apple trees, avocados, berries, etc.
  • Grandchildren!


What’s your perfect meal?

Cheese soufflé, broccoli, and a loaf of fresh French bread with my family.

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