Interview: Kurt Reiber | Freestore Foodbank, CEO and President

by Robert Rizzo | Twitter, Facebook,

The Freestore Foodbank was founded by Frank Gerson in 1971. Gerson started collecting discarded household items and distributing them to families in need. Gerson named his practice the Free Store. He incorporated it as a public charity, quit his job, and opened for business in his apartment. In the first year, Gerson and a small army of volunteers distributed $12,000 worth of rescued clothing, furniture and other items to more than 400 families.

Last year, the Freestore distributed over 12 million pounds of food to more than 325 nonprofit member agencies in a 20 county region in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Member agencies include soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, low-income daycare centers, after-school and summer programs, and senior, youth, rehabilitation and outreach centers.

Kurt Reiber, CEO and President of Freestore Foodbank

Kurt Reiber, CEO and President
of Freestore Foodbank

I love to talk with people in the giving community and hear their stories. They inspire me to continue to give. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with the new CEO and President of the Freestore Foodbank, Kurt Reiber, who assumed his current role at the FSFB in March 2012.

Rieber is a tall yet unassuming man. Though large in stature, his friendly demeanor makes him very approachable. He speaks passionately about the work of the Freestore, emphasizing the impact of the  foodbank beyond food distribution with programs like Cincinnati Cooks.

We toured the Administration facility offices, meeting rooms, the usual. But when we entered the kitchen area where workers busily prepared the days meals, Reiber lit up.

As he introduced me to members of the staff, I could sense his pride in these men and women, much like a coach with his starting line-up.

According to Reiber,  this is the first time many of them have experienced a sense of accomplishment in their life.

Each person focused on their task, some preparing sandwiches, others salads, others huddled over large pieces of meat. These people take the food that is donated and create meals for kids and adults who might otherwise go hungry.

Many of the members of the program have been dealt some of life’s worst but have found significance in their ability to give back to their community.

As we walked through the bustling industrial-sized kitchen,  I could see purpose and self-confidence on the faces of the men and women working. Reiber spoke proudly of the Cincinnati Cooks program which trains unemployed or underemployed adults for work in the food service industry. The free 10-week training program produces 80,000 meals annually. Most of these meals are distributed through the Kids Cafe program that provides free, hot, after-school meals to children who might otherwise go hungry outside of school.

His story

Reiber admits he was strongly influenced by his parents who were actively involved in giving to their community. His mother served at her local church, to this day knitting bags for the elderly to use on their walkers. His father was always involved in youth sports.

According to Reiber, “My parents didn’t tell me how to live, they lived and let me watch them.”

He and his three brothers watched their father work multiple jobs at times to support the family. To make ends meet, his parents often purchased canned foods with no labels because they were discounted. This meant eating was frequently a “chef’s surprise”. Reiber recalled one occasion when the family opened a can to encounter dog food. While they didn’t eat it, he never forgot that.

Reiber attended college at the University of Toledo where he played football, the inglorious position of center. Always standing firm in the face of opposition, protecting his teammates, yet never in the limelight. Almost a foreshadowing of his current role.

After college, Reiber married, had three children, and went to work for Key Bank where he experienced a rewarding career for 29 years rising to the role of Senior Vice President.

In spite of his success, or possibly as a result of it, Reiber spoke gratefully of the way his life has turned out and his current opportunity to giveback to the community saying, “I’ve truly led a blessed life.”

I got the impression he knew things could have turned out differently.

From Success to Significance

For his 50th birthday, Reiber’s kids gave him a copy of  Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance by Bob Buford. The premise of the book is that the first half of our lives we often spend serving ourselves and that the second half of our lives should be spent serving others.

After reading it, he knew he had to change.

So he and his wife spent a couple of years downsizing their lifestyle in preparation for whatever change might come.

Oddly, when he went to apply for the position at Freestore Foodbank, he created a resume, something he had never done since he had worked at Key Bank 29 years.

He was surprised to see his one paying job at Key Bank stacked against a long list of volunteer positions he had held through the years and realized how he had been prepared for his new life of significance.

When he received the position at the Freestore, he jokingly told the leadership they were taking a chance on him since he had only held one other “real” (paying) job.

The first time he met with his new team  at the Freestore he used a metaphor from his college days. His goal is to continue to focus on the fundamentals: blocking and tackling. No fancy stuff, just focusing on what has proven to be the best way to get the job done.

He admits he does not believe in coincidence and spoke openly about his Christian faith and trust in God.

When I asked him what inspired him, he responded, “The people that I work with here. They are the real heroes.”

Fast Facts

  • Most memorable giving experience:

“When I was in the 4th grade, our church was taking up a collection of toys in Sunday School for a local family. I had a slightly used basketball that I thought would make a nice donation. But my parents gently suggested that we could do better than that, saying in effect, “That basketball has seen you through many seasons. Would you want that under your Christmas tree?” Obviously the answer was no. So I used money I collected from a paper route to buy a brand new ball and donate it. ”

  • Quotable Quotes:

“Hunger has no zip code. ”
“The good news is we don’t have to find a cure for hunger, we know what it is. The cure is a meal. “

  • Favorite book: When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box
  • Favorite movie line: Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) speaking to Private First Class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) in the closing scene on the bridge, “Earn this.”
  • Favorite music: Christian Radio “It’s amazing how I will be wrestling with something and hear a song that is on point.”
  • What makes him happy: Phone call from his kids. Finding out his wife had a good day.

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References: For more info visit the Freestore Foodbank here.

Image: Robert Rizzo

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