The Value of Board Service in Addressing Food Insecurity

The Value of Board Service in Addressing Food Insecurity


How UCLA Anderson alumni and faculty are helping to feed Angelenos

jUNE 27, 2023

  • Two UCLA Anderson alumni joined the boards of nonprofits addressing food insecurity to help improve the organizations’ operations, brand recognition and fundraising
  • Both are gratified their MBA skills add value to the organizations’ purpose and goals
  • UCLA Anderson faculty and current students are assembling data to help food rescue organizations and Los Angeles successfully comply with state mandates to reduce waste

“As a father of three young children, it pains me deeply to know that, every day, about three million kids in Los Angeles go to school hungry,” says healthtech entrepreneur Abhilash Patel (’12), a graduate of UCLA Anderson’s fully employed MBA program. “It makes me sad … and fires me up! I wanted to do something about it.”

Nationwide nonprofit organization Food Rescue US estimates that as much as 40% of the country’s food supply is wasted. The USDA Economic Research Service reported in 2021 that 13.5 million households were food insecure. In California, SB 1383 mandates statewide organic waste recycling and surplus food recovery, with the primary goal of reducing greenhouse gasses that are heating the planet. Intercepting and distributing edible food are part of the bill, but slower to take effect: 23% of California’s population was food insecure in 2020 — double the number just two years earlier, CalRecycle reports. Locally, roughly 1 million Los Angeles County residents are food insecure.

What are members of the UCLA Anderson community doing to help reduce these staggering numbers?

Scott Rodilitz, assistant professor of decisions, operations and technology management at Anderson, comes at the problem through an interest in nonprofit management. Drawing on techniques from operations, computer science, economics and statistics, Rodilitz produces research that optimizes online platforms to support public- and civic-sector decision makers. Before joining the faculty at Anderson, he designed a forward-thinking, location-specific algorithm to help Food Rescue US improve its volunteer-based crowdsourcing.

Now Rodilitz and Professor Charles Corbett, Anderson’s IBM Chair in Management, are partnering with colleagues at UC Davis to supervise three UCLA Anderson MBA students tasked with conducting interviews to understand the effects of SB 1383 on stakeholders such as food recovery organizations. By highlighting opportunities for operational improvements, they intend to equip organizations with information that will streamline processes, and to provide guidance to policymakers as well. “Food recovery nonprofits have data, but utilizing it is costly,” Rodilitz says. “Organizations responding to the problem face design challenges and budget constraints. They present opportunities for academic partnerships, collaboration with business leaders and pro bono consulting.”

And Patel, for one, knows that board service can make a difference. He scanned the L.A. nonprofit sector to find an organization solving the problem of food insecurity that he would be proud to be associated with. A serial entrepreneur, Patel was keenly aware of the organizational characteristics necessary for market success and operational health.

“I zeroed in on the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank because of a match between my skills and what I saw as an organizational need.”
— Abhilash Patel (’12)

“With nearly 30% of low-income individuals in L.A. struggling with food insecurity, the nonprofit-profit sector was crowded with a wide range of successful organizations working in the space,” Patel says. “In the end, I zeroed in on the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank because of its track record, its size and potential for impact, and because of a match between my skills and what I saw as an organizational need.”

The L.A. Regional Food Bank is one of the top three most-recognized nonprofits in L.A. County. Distributing over 100 million pounds of food each year, the food bank serves a wide range of individuals and families desperately in need of food to stave off hunger and improve nutrition. “The consequences are clear: Poor nutrition resulting from food insecurity leads to myriad harms across the spectrum, including mental health challenges and increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It also affects children’s ability to concentrate and achieve academically,” Patel says. “If we don’t ameliorate the problem, the long-term negative impact on our society is huge in many dimensions, from the human to the economic to the social.”

Patel joined the L.A. Regional Food Bank’s board of directors after he identified a unique opportunity while studying the organization. “I am a marketer at heart. I knew that for the food bank to remain successful long term, it had to build its strengths in brand recognition, fundraising and growing its constituent base. These are all my strong suits. I’m a founder-turned-investor-turned-founder-again, now building Within Health, a behavioral health remote treatment solution for people suffering from eating disorders. I understand the emotional side of marketing and know how to build the technical and operating infrastructure to deliver growth. So, I reached out to the food bank’s CEO, Michael Flood, and discussed an arrangement where I could donate not just some dollars, but also my talents in helping to build institutional competencies that could serve the L.A. Regional Food Bank for the long term.

“I was lucky that Michael, besides being one of America’s top authorities on food banking and nutrition insecurity, is a visionary leader and incredible operator,” Patel says. “He immediately understood the value proposition in my ask, and the rest is history. Roger Castle has been integral as chief development officer and David May equally so in marketing. All the management and staff exemplify a key takeaway from one of my favorite professors at Anderson — John Ullmen — that good leaders can become great leaders by building meaningful relationships across their organizations. I have been on the board for seven years now and love every interaction I have with the organization. They do all the hard work and deserve all the credit in the world.”

Somehow, Patel finds the time to stay engaged with the food bank while also managing his business.

“Volunteering makes all the other parts of my life better. Working on social issues that affect the community we live in helps me gain new perspectives and helps me remember what is important in a well-rounded life — the kind of life I want to live,” Patel says. “It’s partly selfish, but I know I’ll get more done and more good will come if I have my priorities right.”

The numbers tell a scary story about food insecurity in L.A.: it is pervasive and insidious. Multiple strategies — from the large-scale hands-on efforts of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to Rodilitz and Corbett’s data-driven research to immersive community education — are needed to address the complex problem of food insecurity.

“It’s not a burden for me to carve out the time for FEAST because I know I am making a concrete contribution to addressing an issue that I care deeply about.”
— Eric Lau (B.A. ’00, ’19)

That’s where FEAST (Food Education Access Support Together) comes in. Founded in 2013 by Sam Polk and Dr. Kristen Thompson under the original name Groceryships, FEAST addresses the health disparities affecting families by emphasizing that a healthy life has three main ingredients: whole foods, whole people and whole communities. FEAST’s holistic programs combine practical skills like nutrition education and healthy cooking with a support-group structure that builds deep bonds of friendship and social connection.

For Amazon product manager Eric Lau (B.A. ’00, ’19), everything about FEAST’s mission and strategy resonated deeply. Lau is the son of Chinese immigrants who made a huge impact on the Asian restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley with Lunasia, a pioneering dim sum restaurant that featured items on a menu, rather than on a rolling cart. Good food and innovation have been a part of Lau’s origins from a young age, so it was natural for him to choose FEAST when he was seeking a way to help solve local community problems.

“The mantra that has guided me through the various phases of my career is simple: ‘How can I add value?’ With FEAST, I found an organization that spoke to me on a very personal level. Having grown up in the restaurant business, I appreciated the power of food to nurture and to connect. I believe that everyone has the right to good, nutritious food, so it was easy for me to want to help FEAST as they evolved and developed a new growth strategy,” Lau says.

“When I joined the board, FEAST was at a critical inflection point. They had to find new ways to scale their program in order to grow and expand their impact. Much of FEAST’s operations were high-touch and in-person — everything from registering participants to conducting nutrition classes to mailing vouchers was hands-on. I am focused on helping FEAST expand its footprint by advising and guiding on strategy and technology to automate and scale operations.

“It’s very satisfying because I can apply so much learning from my own career and education to help FEAST. I am currently head of AWS Labs and Industry Vertical Strategy at Amazon Web Services. My career, which includes my Anderson education and founding my own e-commerce startup, helped refine my core value-add: navigating ambiguity, clarifying problems, seeking effective solutions and implementing strategy with diverse teams to bring value for clients, partners or, in FEAST’s case, beneficiaries,” Lau says.

“Although I have a young family and a demanding leadership role at AWS, it’s not a burden for me to carve out the time for FEAST because I know I am making a concrete contribution to addressing an issue that I care deeply about. I’ve had to become good at time management and l’ve learned to plan ahead and to time-box my commitments in a way that works for me.”

Lau contributes his time and talent as an alumni advisor to the Easton Technology Management Center’s Innovation Challenge and to the Venture Accelerator at Anderson, advising business startup teams on strategy, product management, leadership and technology. He credits his Anderson mentor, Professor Terry Kramer, Easton’s faculty director, with guiding him on the foundational principles needed to optimize personal and professional growth, bring passion to his own work and make a meaningful impact on others.

“For Anderson MBAs exploring the idea of contributing some of their time and talents to a nonprofit… I say, go for it. You won’t be disappointed. Go to networking events, and meet people and organizations involved in issues you care about. There is always a need, and always a way to add value.”

Patel agrees: “I encourage every Anderson grad to consider volunteering. Find a cause or issue you care passionately about. Every nonprofit needs volunteers in functions where MBA skills will be put to good use: from accounting and finance to marketing to operations to information systems. The more involved you get, the more you will realize how easy it is to make a positive impact with just a few hours of time. Just get started — they need us!”

Learn more about volunteering for Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and FEAST