by Bobby Anderson
In the beginning, it was just Rodney Bivens and a half-ton pickup driving around to local safeway stores picking up canned goods.
Thirty-six years later, the Oklahoma Food Bank has grown into a world class organization meeting the needs of hundreds of thousands of people needing help putting food on the table.
“I always felt if it was right, you believed in something and put the time and resources into it … people would respond to it,” Bivens said.
Bivens, 70, is the founder and executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. But he’ll pass the torch soon, leaving a legacy that has touched so many Oklahomans.
“Maybe a week ago I said this retirement gig is harder than I thought it would be,” Bivens said of all the attention he’s been getting since announcing his retirement. “Maybe I should have just written out of a resignation letter and gave my two weeks notice.”
His work with other nonprofit agencies led him to witness what hunger can do to individuals and families.
Out of his personal conviction that no one should have to face hunger in a nation blessed with so much abundance, he founded the organization in 1980.
Born and raised in Chickasha, Bivens and his three older brothers grew up on a farm just outside of town. After his father was disabled in a car accident, the Bivens’ family came to rely on friends, family and church to help them keep food on their table.
The experience left Bivens with a unique perspective on the impact of hunger on children and families in Oklahoma.
Under his leadership, the Regional Food Bank has grown rapidly to fulfill the need for food in central and western Oklahoma. In its first year of operation, the Regional Food Bank distributed 280,000 pounds of food.
Today, that amount is distributed in about three days.
The nonprofit provides enough food to feed more than 110,000 people every week with administrative and fundraising costs less than four percent.
Since its inception in 1980, the Regional Food Bank has distributed more than 545 million pounds of food to our hungry Oklahoma neighbors.
It’s food that goes out the door, but for Bivens it’s about so much more.
“You reminisce a little about things,” Bivens said of what’s been on his mind the last few weeks. “I think about the people we serve and the contacts we’ve had. It’s all about people, the people we serve, the folks who work here, the volunteers we have the board members and I’ve been privileged to get to know a lot of people. For me it always comes down to people.”
Bivens and his team at the Regional Food Bank developed one of the first rural distribution systems in the country, which has become a model for other food banks.
The Regional Food Bank currently serves more than 1,200 charitable feeding programs and schools throughout 53 counties in central and western Oklahoma, and distributes nationally donated product to four other food banks in Kansas, Texas and New Mexico, as well.
The Regional Food Bank was the first in the nation to implement an online inventory and agency ordering system with new technology for increased efficiency in food distribution.
Other efficiency initiatives implemented at the food bank facilitate energy conservation, solid waste reduction, air quality controls and sustainable living techniques for a more efficient operation.
Bivens has also shepherded other innovative programs into existence at the Regional Food Bank, including Urban Harvest, an urban sustainable agriculture program that aims to teach individuals and community groups to grow their own food.
The Regional Food Bank also implemented the Food for Kids Backpack Program, which provides a backpack full of weekend food to chronically hungry elementary children throughout the school year. The program began in 2003 as a pilot program in five urban elementary schools, and it now serves more than 18,500 children in 501 elementary schools.
There are now 124 school pantries in middle and high schools in Oklahoma serving the needs of nearly 5,000 chronically hungry students. As the founder of the 21st food bank in the U.S., Bivens has more than 35 years of experience fighting domestic hunger and he is seen as a leader in the food banking arena.
Bivens served on the board of directors of Feeding America for more than 12 years in various positions. He also helps in national disaster relief efforts, and in 2005, set up an emergency relief warehouse for Hurricane Katrina and Rita storm victims.
In less than four weeks, he helped to distribute more than 8 million pounds of relief supplies in the New Orleans area.
“I feel good about. I feel great about the organization and where we’re at,” Bivens said of retiring. “I know we’re going to continue to grow and throw in the community and the community will continue to respond to the need.”