Valerie Traore knew at a young age she wanted to have her life centered on improving the lives of others. Her mother struggled with alcohol and was absent from her and her five siblings lives, as was her father.
“Many times, we were left in our home by ourselves,” the Sicklerville resident recalled. “At 7 years old, I was taking care of my siblings, getting myself ready and then trying to get my younger sister and brother at ages 5 and 6 ready for school.”
It was those years growing up in Maryland that Traore realized how dire of a situation her and her siblings were in.
“Even at that young age, I was acutely aware that we did not have food,” she said. “Not only that, but sometimes we didn’t have heat, and we got evicted. I saw our possessions out in front of the street.”
Her mother died when she was 7 and her grandparents took in her and her siblings in. Six months later, her grandfather died, and her grandmother was a single parents to five kids.
“The difference between her and my mom is she had a home that was paid for and we never worried about shelter, food and clothing. That’s what our grandmother provided.”
Knowing what it was like to not have food on the table, Traore’s mission as CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey is to make sure no child goes hungry, and she has pursued that goal throughout her career. She’s been in the food banking industry for 25 years and has worked in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and New York before coming to the Food Bank of South Jersey in 2009.
The Food Bank provides food to people in Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Salem counties. Traore said there are about 200,000 people who are not sure where their next meal is coming from.
“First and foremost is to make sure no one goes hungry because that needs to be a right we all have as human beings, is that we need to have access to food whether we can afford it or not,” she said. “We need to have access to it because food is what we need in order to live. Children need it in order to learn, seniors need it in order to preserve their lives, and all of us that fall in between, we need it in order to have these healthy and productive lives.”
The Food Bank of South Jersey takes the surplus from the food industry — manufacturers, wholesalers and the government.
“We bring that food into our distribution center and then distribute it to about 250 food pantries, meal kitchens, after-school programs and senior programs who provide that to people in need in their community,” Traore said.
The amount of surplus food is about 12 million pounds. To put that into perspective, Traore gave a visual.
“If you went to Lincoln Financial Field, take a Trader Joe’s grocery bag, fill it to the rim and put that in every seat, do that about seven times and visually that’s what close to 12 million pounds looks like,” she said.
Traore said between 2008 and 2011, during the recession and housing market crash, the Food Bank saw a whole new batch of people reach out to it for the first time, due to people losing jobs and/or homes, and not being able to put food on their table for the first time.
“Some of these people came from affluent towns — Voorhees, Moorestown, Marlton,” she said. “Hunger does not discriminate. Sometimes, people are not even aware that their neighbor who looks like everything is going good, is sitting in that house probably eating Oodles and Noodles. No one can see you hungry when you’re inside of your house. We get those people that don’t go to a food pantry because they are embarrassed, and they come right here.”
Traore and her staff are constantly coming up with up new ideas to raise money, help other organizations and businesses and educate others how to create healthy meals. In 2012, Traore came up with a creative way to help farmers in South Jersey and bring more money to the food bank — taking 850,000 pounds of bruised peaches that farmers cannot sell and throw away, and turn them into something profitable.
“One of the problems people don’t realize is that South Jersey farmers struggle down here,” she said. “They struggle to deliver crops that will sell to their primary market, and because of their imperfections and different sizes, they don’t always have a home for their product and they throw it away.”
Traore went to Campbell Soup Company, one of its partners, and asked them to create a recipe for peach salsa. The product is called “Just Peachy Salsa” and is sold at 48 retail outlets in South Jersey, including ShopRite, Murphy’s Markets and the Collingswood Farmers Market. All of the proceeds go back to the food bank.
“These farmers were paying $100,000 to dump those peaches, and we saved them that cost and they can use it on infrastructure buildings, and we helped the environment by not having them go into the landfill,” she said. “We also saved the life of a perishable product that can be re-purposed to another food item. It all circles back to us so we can put more food on the tables of hungry South Jerseyans and teach them how to eat healthy.”
It’s all come full circle for Traore, who is doing exactly what her grandmother taught her many years ago as a young girl.
“She always taught me service before self,” she said. “That’s what we’re here to do is to be a solution to somebody else’s problem.”
To find out how to organize a food drive in your community and donate to the Food Bank of South Jersey, visit www.foodbanksj.org.