Ryan Whitton, executive director of the Granite Falls Food Bank, unloads donated food from a truck. Whitton became the executive director at the age of 22 last November. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ryan Whitton, executive director of the Granite Falls Food Bank, unloads donated food from a truck. Whitton became the executive director at the age of 22 last November. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

‘I was that kid’: At 22, food bank leader’s past motivates him

The Granite Falls Food Bank’s first paid executive director has a hard-earned sense of empathy.

GRANITE FALLS — When Ryan Whitton took over the Granite Falls Food Bank, he was still learning the day-to-day operations. Less than a year later, the 22-year-old executive director has hired staff and is increasing access to the food bank’s resources.

“I have never loved my job so much in my entire life,” said Whitton, who grew up in Granite Falls. “I wake up and every day is a good day.”

Until last fall, Whitton worked in children’s ministry at a large church. The food bank director described himself as “the at-risk youth” and said he found God after graduating high school.

“I was the kid that dropped out and wasn’t going to return to school,” Whitton said. He “lived in poverty and was in an environment of drug abuse and neglect — I was that kid. … I had no intention of providing for others, because I couldn’t even provide for myself and those around me couldn’t provide for me. You get to a point where you’re just surviving.”

Whitton’s experiences now drive his own work. Friends and Crossroads High School staff convinced him to enroll in the school’s Open Doors Youth Reengagement program. He graduated high school within a year.

“If I don’t acknowledge what I’ve learned and use that to help others, then that was a waste,” Whitton said. “I went through all that stuff for absolutely nothing.”

Ryan Whitton, executive director of the Granite Falls Food Bank, shows Ellen Panagos how to turn on the refrigeration unit in a truck. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ryan Whitton, executive director of the Granite Falls Food Bank, shows Ellen Panagos how to turn on the refrigeration unit in a truck. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

When the pandemic began, the church’s congregation fell drastically. Around the same time, Whitton was forced to find other work. The Granite Falls Community Coalition was hiring its first paid executive director for the food bank. Whitton viewed ministry and non-profit work as similar.

“The one thing that unites every single person here is empathy,” Whitton said. “We’re all here because we’re empathetic towards those that need it.”

On a recent morning, food bank volunteers were preparing for distribution day. Marva Brown, a Granite Falls resident for 51 years, began volunteering at the food bank after fellow volunteer Marcia Day recruited her last year.

The pair described themselves as best friends as they removed blemished tomatoes. Brown said the main reason she volunteers at the food bank is because she wants to help others.

“They are a really nice group of people that want to do the work to make sure people get fed,” Brown said. “I like being around people like that.”

Until recently, the food bank was entirely run by volunteers. It was serving hundreds of people every month while operating out of two portable buildings in a gravel parking lot.

After spending a single day shadowing the previous director, the food bank’s first paid staff member was left to figure out the rest. Volunteers taught him how the food bank operated. He began making changes a few months later and hired three paid staff members to help the nonprofit grow.

Ryan Whitton, executive director of the Granite Falls Food Bank, talks with Operations Manager Kathy Pickett in his office. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ryan Whitton, executive director of the Granite Falls Food Bank, talks with Operations Manager Kathy Pickett in his office. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Whitton ultimately wants to open an inclusive grocery store in Granite Falls that operates as a nonprofit. It would sell the same groceries for customers who need assistance from the food bank and those that don’t. He’s been brainstorming ways customers could shop together without knowing who receives food bank assistance.

One of the biggest obstacles in providing food bank services, Whitton said, is people’s fear of shame. Even people who need help, Whitton said, are worried their neighbors will see and judge them.

“Until we can include the community members that are not receiving food bank services and the community members that are … into the same area, the stigma is never going to end,” Whitton said. “If we have a grocery store that is inclusive … then that really starts to battle a stigma that otherwise wouldn’t go anywhere.”

For now, Whitton is looking for immediate ways he can make the food bank more accessible. The coalition recently began hosting an open, outdoor market on Wednesdays.

The food is available from 4 to 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at 307 South Granite Avenue (the food bank’s old headquarters). On the first, third and fifth Wednesdays, the outdoor market is open 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Wind of Joy Fellowship Church.

The setup looks similar to a farmer’s market and gives volunteers and clients more time to speak with each other, Whitton said.

“There are so many benefits to receiving these services, it’s not just the tangible stuff,” Whitton said. “Sometimes it’s having a conversation with somebody that can tell you they care about you.”

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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