For years Pete Schaefer was an executive at McDonald's Corp., jetting back and forth to booming markets in Asia. Today, he runs the Northern Illinois Food Bank, and a road trip to Rockford counts as a notable departure.
Going from a multibillion-dollar business that feeds 60 million global customers a day to a nonprofit that feeds more than 60,000 needy folks each week might seem like a dramatic downshift. The resources alone don't compare.
"I was used to picking up the phone and calling the world's best experts on any given issue," said Schaefer, 52. "I've come to a food bank budget, and I've become a beggar."
But in other ways, it's not as different as you might think.
Just as McDonald's is always hunting for new mouths to feed, so is the food bank. Schaefer aims to triple the amount of food the organization distributes to a 13-county area to 100 million pounds a year.
In pursuit of that goal — he won't reveal a time frame for reaching it — Schaefer spends his days as president and CEO of the Geneva-based Northern Illinois Food Bank drumming up support from local manufacturers, food retailers and group and individual donors.
Joblessness and poverty in Illinois have left 12.5 percent of the residents in the food bank's service area struggling to meet basic food needs. One in four children in northern Illinois is at risk of going hungry, according to recent studies by Feeding America, the Chicago-based national food bank association.
The problem isn't as simple as unemployment, Schaefer said, as one-third of the people he serves are working. "They just don't have enough of a job," he said. After rent, car payments and utility bills, "sometimes what's left over to spend at Jewel and Dominick's doesn't hack it."
Skimpy food budgets are new to many people in DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties. Once financially stable families are increasingly turning to the soup kitchens and other organizations that the Northern Illinois Food Bank supplies with staples such as bread and milk, diapers and baby formula, fresh meat, and produce.
The food bank will feed more than a half-million people this year, up 168 percent from 2006.
"We thought it was a problem (then) because we were doing 15 million pounds of food. Now we're doing 36 million pounds," Schaefer said. In the coming year, he expects that number to climb to 40 million pounds.
Many of the food bank's more than 600 partner organizations, including nonprofits, churches and other groups, scour the food bank's website daily to place orders. Some have reported a 35 to 50 percent increase in demand; others pick up, on average,100 new needy families each week.
"I see people who were impacted from the very beginning of the recession, have not been able to find work and have come to the end of their resources," said Marilyn Weisner, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry. "They have used their savings, sold their houses, have received help from family and now they need to come to a food pantry."
Schaefer frequently meets these people when he's working on the front lines, such as on a ride-along to help deliver food through the food bank's mobile pantry program or helping out at a pantry, as he did recently on a cold, rainy Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Standing in the freezer of the Aurora pantry, Schaefer wore borrowed gloves as he helped a volunteer load a grocery cart with frozen turkeys. Lines of cars waited outside to receive boxes stuffed with necessities for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, including fresh potatoes and cranberry sauce.
As he wheeled out the turkeys, volunteers whizzed past him, busy with their own tasks.
"What do you need?" he asked the pantry's office manager, Kristan Ensminger, when she stopped to say hello. "We could use a lot more cereal," she replied, grinning as she quickly excused herself to get back to work. Another volunteer called out, "Baby formula and diapers."
Later that day Schaefer recalled working with an unemployed man who spends his time volunteering at the shelter.
"He's an unemployed guy who's not home crying or putting himself in a bottle somewhere. He's there packing turkeys," Schaefer said. "I can't tell you how motivating that is."
Costs, donations up
In the old days, food banks readily accepted castoffs; it was all about dented cans and food drives, Schaefer said. Donations from the government were much more plentiful too. That's all changed. Schaefer expects government contributions to shrink 30 to 50 percent this year and to fall more next year. Food suppliers are becoming more efficient, too, meaning fewer castoffs to distribute.
To close the gap, Schaefer shops for food. Last year the food bank spent $2.5 million buying mainly shelf staples such as peanut butter, pasta and canned vegetables. This year, Schaefer said, he is certain they'll spend more.
Since good food isn't necessarily cheap, Schaefer is forced to make some tough decisions on things as seemingly simple as soup.
Lower-sodium chicken soup costs more than its higher-sodium counterpart. Thus, buying low-sodium means less soup to go around.
"Do you want me to buy as many pounds as I can (and) meet the most need for our neighbors?" he said. "If I can buy more soup that's got salt in it, then, shucks, I want to make sure we have more soup."
More healthful staples such as brown rice cost twice as much as white rice, Schaefer said, and just because the food bank is a charity doesn't mean it gets a discounted price.
"We would love to have the most nutritious food, but the reality is you have to have some balance between good nutrition and foods that will satisfy hunger," he said.
In early fall, the food bank tripled its freezer space and doubled its dry storage when it moved into a new facility, which also includes a demonstration kitchen, classrooms and a staff nutritionist to provide healthy cooking classes and other programs for members.
The 140,000-square-foot facility, with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification, cost $19 million, funded in part by donations and a $12 million bond issued by the city of Geneva. Half of it is paid for. Schaefer, the self-described "fundraiser in chief," is hustling to raise the rest.
A steady flow of money arrives, though, and at least once a week Schaefer can be found in his office signing a tall stack of thank-you letters. Donations are up 13 percent this year, he said. Nearly half the money the food bank raises comes from individuals — the average donor writes a check for $65 — with another 40 percent from businesses and other organizations.
"We could double and triple the donations before we could have a conversation about meeting the need," he said.
Many hats, one heart
A lawyer, Schaefer was charged in the 1990s with protecting the McDonald's brand against the onslaught of lawsuits that comes with serving millions of customers a day. By 2000 he had moved to the operations side to become head of safety, security and social accountability, focusing on, among other things, food and toy safety.
At a company where decisions were often made in silos, Schaefer liked to bring people around the table to get other perspectives, said his wife, Julie Schaefer, also a former McDonald's employee.
This was particularly apparent during the widely publicized "hot coffee" lawsuit in 1993, when an 81-year-old New Mexico woman sued McDonald's after suffering third-degree burns when coffee spilled in her lap. A jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.7 million, which a judge later reduced. The case was eventually settled out of court.
Not married at the time, Julie and Pete worked closely together on the crisis: she on the media relations side, Pete on the legal end.
To come up with a strategy for dealing with the situation, Schaefer brought together a number of people from various parts of the business.
"He was often told, 'That's not necessary,' or 'That's not the way we do it,'" said Julie Schaefer. "But he'd do it in an unobtrusive way."
That's Pete Schaefer's velvet hammer approach, according to friends and former colleagues.
"He knows how to disagree without being disagreeable," said Michael A. Donahue, a former chief communications officer at McDonald's who worked with Schaefer for several years. "Every now and again he has a little bit of an Irish temper," he added, chuckling.
For a long time Schaefer traveled extensively for McDonald's and loved it. But one night, as he headed to the airport for one of his frequent trips to China, Schaefer felt a tug in the pit in his stomach. He called his wife to tell her he didn't want to go. Once it would take him a full week away to get homesick. Now, with a young daughter and son, he dreaded leaving.
"I didn't want to be an absentee dad," he said.
He ultimately decided to leave McDonald's in 2009, after 16 years with the company.
"My wife and I were having dinner together, and we started talking about life and whether we wanted a yacht. It kind of dawned on me that a lot of my friends were still at McDonald's because they wanted a yacht," he said. "We started exploring what we wanted to do."
He slowed down and regrouped. He and his wife worked on their consulting business, and he stepped up his volunteer work at the food bank. He had begun by spending a few hours packing pasta 18 years ago. He eventually served on the Greater Chicago Food Depository board for six years, later joining the board of the Northern Illinois Food Bank when he and his wife moved to the suburbs.
When longtime CEO H. Dennis Smith decided to retire, Schaefer threw his hat in the ring.
That ignitable spirit is apparent when Schaefer discusses the food bank. He speaks quickly, but his voice gets higher and his cadence picks up as he explains the two aspects of his job.
"That part where you see people in line, and it's a bummer and it pulls our heart. And then you see the volunteers standing out to hand out food. It's the yin and the yang. It's that spirit that keeps you going," he said.
There's also some immediate satisfaction.
"It's not a charity where you are trying to solve some cancer in 10 years," he said. "I was always touched by that."
His enthusiasm impressed the food bank's board that, like his predecessor, he'd be in it for the long haul.
"We were looking for someone who had the same kind of love for the future of the food bank," said board member Jim Oberweis, owner of Oberweis Dairy. "Pete was very enthusiastic about that."
Board Chairman Dan Adzia said that adding McDonald's into the food bank's donor list had long been a goal. Last year, Schaefer helped facilitate his former employer making a donation through its Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Schaefer saw his food industry history going to good use, thinking "I can be good to this charity," he said. "And it can be enormously rewarding to me, not in the financial sense, but in the life-completion sense."
Peter Schaefer, president and CEO, Northern Illinois Food Bank
Home life: Married to speechwriter and consultant Julie Schaefer; they have two children and live in Lake Forest.
Hobbies: Golf, paddle tennis, reading history and spending time with family.
On ending hunger: "It's not a question of lack of food in the United States or even money, but willpower. It's the community coming together. We won't solve poverty, but if someone in northern Illinois needs a full belly, we can solve that."
On being antsy: "I never got bored of the law, I think I just got bored of jobs. … It just seems like every couple of years I get antsy and I want to see what's next. I'm not one of those people who could settle in and do nothing. I could never do the same thing for 30 years."
On turning 50: "My mom was in her early 50s when she died. I'll be older than she was next year. When you hit your 50s — a lot of my college buddies, they keep calling it 'halftime.' I say, 'Man, you're almost in the fourth quarter.' Especially men. It's all women who are 100 years old."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun