Whenever Tom Hong walks into a grocery store, it’s like he owns the place.
Hong, a longtime retail relations specialist at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, breezily makes his way through the swinging doorways and onto the receiving docks typically off-limits to everyday shoppers.
There, he’s greeted with hugs and handshakes, smiles and stories.
A former grocery store director, Hong believes these places - the walk-in coolers, the prep kitchens, the butcher counters - and the people who staff them hold the keys to solving one of America’s most frustrating paradoxes: While 66 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year, 34 million people in the U.S., including more than 9 million children, do not have access to the food they need to thrive.
“My work is all about communication and education of grocery and retail staff, education of the general public, and just being able to work together with food banks to get to the root causes of hunger,” Hong said.
As the country's largest food rescue organization, Feeding America partners with grocery stores, food manufacturers, convenience stores, foodservice distributors, produce companies, and farmers to rescue food and deliver it to food banks then to families facing hunger across the country. In 2021, with the help of food rescue specialists like Hong and his team, the Feeding America network rescued 3.6 billion pounds of food that could have otherwise gone to waste.
For Hong, the act of building relationships and networking is the lifeblood of the process.
That’s why you’ll find him cramming the back of his small silver SUV with food bank swag and carting from store to store, working the produce sections and dairy coolers to connect with employees.
On a recent afternoon, he playfully goaded a young dock worker at an Amazon Fresh into offering up his cell phone number, then deftly connected the worker with a driver from a nearby food pantry -- and established a new weekly pickup schedule on the fly.
Later, he’d scrawl out a huge handmade “thank you” sign for a store manager acknowledging her store’s contributions of donated food.
At a nearby Aldi, he beelined to the receiving floor to get a peek at donated food slated for pickup and nudged the manager there for a little more. At Walmart, he enthusiastically rounded up a gaggle of associates for a team photo in support of the food bank. At Jewel-Osco, he pointed at the store’s industrial trash compactor telling everyone in earshot, “this here is the biggest loser! We don’t want anything going in there!”
By all accounts, the approach is effective.
Because one thing that’s also worth noting about Tom Hong is he’s the type of guy who won’t be blown off.
“Tom Hong operates at a different level. Upon meeting Tom, you are quickly recruited into the fight against hunger and realize that somehow or some way Tom has figured out your superpowers and your needs. Tom is the greatest motivator I’ve ever met. I’ve accompanied him to so many events over the past decade and watched him in action. Tom’s magic is in the details. To go that extra mile makes all the difference in the world,” said Chris White, Chief Operations Officer at Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Since his arrival at the Northern Illinois Food Bank - first as a volunteer, then into a full-time role – donations secured by Hong’s food sourcing team have skyrocketed within the “Direct Connect” program, which pairs the food banks’ partner food pantries and meal programs with grocery stores and retailers.
Now, a full 87 percent of food pickups are now handled by the food bank’s partner agencies.
So just why is he so motivated? To hear Hong tell it, it’s the least he could do.
Growing up in foster homes and impoverished, then climbing the ranks as a young stocker at Chicago’s regional Jewel-Osco chain all the way to the chain’s Store Director role, afforded him the realization that he was uniquely positioned to do something about the issue of hunger.
“I’ve seen hunger personally; I see hunger in the people I work with every day at the food bank. After 40 years of working in the grocery business I’m in a position that I’m able to help others, but in reality, the truth is these people are helping me to do what I should be doing,” he said.