USDA Food and Nutrition Service Interviews Kristen Wild for Women’s History Month
This year’s Women’s History Month theme at the USDA is Providing Healing, Promoting Hope. Allison Bell of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service spoke with the OFS President and CEO about the extraordinary circumstances that women have helped overcome in the past two years of the COVID crisis, specifically in the anti-hunger space.
President & CEO of Operation Food Search
What inspires you to work in the fight against hunger?
Throughout my career, I have worked in advocacy and education environments, including Autism Speaks, Sylvan Learning Centers, the Ladue Education Foundation, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Houston Independent School District and St. Louis Public Schools.
Given my roots in teaching kids whose basic needs were not being met, I was drawn to the opportunity to meet one of the most basic needs of all: food security, which is crucial for children to thrive in the classroom and beyond.
What woman in your life has influenced you the most?
The woman who has influenced/inspired me the most is my mom. Throughout her 81 years, she has lived selflessly and demonstrated her commitment to making the world a better place. She was a children’s librarian and a preschool teacher, which influenced my decision to pursue a career path working with children. She always volunteered much of her time to philanthropic endeavors. She has a nurturing demeanor and a kind spirit which has been beneficial to her own children as well as those she’s mentored and taught over the years.
What have you seen from your community during the COVID-19 crisis that gives you hope for the future?
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I have seen an incredible outpouring of support from the community that has come in many forms: people making financial donations or hosting a neighborhood food drive; students making and selling masks to raise funds; a scientist at the Danforth Plant Science Center making hand sanitizer to donate; children hosting a drive-through Starbucks in their driveway; a gentleman who hosts porch concerts to raise money to feed families; a supporter who ran 100 miles in Forest Park to raise more than $30K; and families who conduct birthday parades for their kids and ask for donations of food instead of presents.
The pandemic has inspired organizations—particularly in the non-profit sector— to collaborate more than ever. One example is the formation of the COVID-19 Regional Response Team, made up of nearly 150 organizations, committed to address the needs of at-risk populations, low-income communities, first responders and other essential personnel. The RRT was initially assembled to respond to the pandemic, and now it’s perfectly positioned to shift its focus to addressing racial inequity in our community.
Another example includes various organizations coming together to offer a variety of items in drive-through distributions. At many St. Louis County Library branches, Operation Food Search provides food, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank provides diapers, Little Bit Foundation provides school supplies, Springboard provides art projects, the library provides books, PrepareSTL provides PPE.
Since the onset of the pandemic, there is a greater awareness of food insecurity. It has always existed, but the heightened levels have opened a lot of eyes. In the past two years, many people faced food insecurity for the very first time. The pandemic has made clear that many families are just one crisis away from having difficulty putting food on the table. Once we get past this current crisis, I hope that the momentum of addressing food insecurity continues, and we can shift our focus from just addressing the immediate need to putting into place policies and supports that will have a more systemic impact to reduce hunger.
What is one piece of advice you wish you could give to your younger self?
If I could give advice to my younger self, it would be . . . don’t stress about taking time off to be a full-time stay-at-home mom for several years. I clearly remember the day, 14 years ago, when my son was in first grade, and I was the president of his school’s parents’ association. I was running the class holiday party, and a friend of mine said to me, “You should be running a Fortune 500 company.” I had mixed feelings when she said that to me . . . flattered that she thought I was capable, but I questioned if I was wasting my talents and the college education for which my parents had paid! I felt as though I was living short of expectations. Five years later, I re-entered the workforce on a part-time basis, not knowing how to use Outlook. Six years later, I was hired to run one of the largest and most impactful nonprofits in St. Louis. I am grateful for every stage of my life!
Kristen Wild Biography:
Kristen Wild is President and Chief Executive Officer of Operation Food Search (OFS), a hunger relief agency that provides food and services to 200,000 people each month in Missouri and Illinois. Kristen oversees the operations, programs and initiatives OFS sets forth in its work to heal hunger and strengthen the community. Kristen’s push for innovation and collaboration has enabled the organization to grow substantially in the last few years, as it stepped up its response to meet the increased need due to the pandemic.
Kristen represented OFS in its role on the regional response task force that was created to ensure that the needs of the community were met during the pandemic. She has created or amplified impactful partnerships, such as a collaboration with St. Louis County Library, which has enabled OFS to distribute millions of meals to children. In addition, she has ensured the longevity of the organization by spearheading endowment efforts to raise more than $7 million.
She has overseen the hiring of new staff, recruitment of board members and the expansion of crucial programs to address the underlying causes of hunger.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University, Kristen holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology. She joined OFS after serving as Executive Director of the Ladue Education Foundation & Alumni Association. She has extensive experience in advocacy and education environments, including Autism Speaks, Sylvan Learning Centers, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Houston Independent School District and St. Louis Public Schools.
Kristen received the 2020 Community Service Award from the Harvard Club of St. Louis; she was named a 2021 Most Influential Business Woman by the St. Louis Business Journal; and she was recognized as a 2021 YWCA Leader of Distinction.