Welcoming Jay Kang: Thurston County Food Bank’s First Chief Executive Officer

by Kathryn Millhorn • Photography by Shanna Paxton

Charitable, civic organizations like the Thurston County Food Bank wear many hats. Of course, they work tirelessly to provide much-needed food to the community. But they also meet emerging needs, fundraise, organize volunteers, and squeeze every last drop out of vital donations. In November 2022, our Food Bank shifted focus slightly and brought on its first CEO, Jay Kang.

Despite the pandemic, endless shipping and supply chain issues, and rising inflation, the Food Bank continues to maintain its mission “to eliminate hunger within our community, in the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor.” Kang’s hiring is a perfect fit. With more than 35 years of experience in community- and faith-based nonprofits, a passion for refugee and immigrant communities, and the caring heart of a long-time pastor, he jumped in with gusto.

“I was looking for an east coast job after 20 years in the Pacific Northwest,” Kang admits, “but decided to look for one around here just in case. I’ve previously worked with community resource centers and learned how important it is to address basic needs.” The Food Bank brought him on as Chief Executive Officer, a slight change from former leadership titles. “As the first CEO, I can focus on the administrative side, like fundraising and building internal and external relationships.”

While this is a smaller organization than he’s used to, Kang was won over by the Food Bank’s role within the community. “When I came here, I realized how vital it is to Thurston County,” says Kang. “I love how our staff and volunteers are so dedicated to the organization. I went through the holiday season, which touched my heart so much.” At Thanksgiving alone, their 400 volunteers made up 4,000 meal packages.

Kang recalls that it was raining hard and cold at their Lacey site, where he was helping intake volunteers and staff. “I was touched by how dedicated they were. Many people in the line told me they were regulars, and they were so thankful for the staff and volunteers for that dedication. I was very touched by the smiles and appreciation they expressed.”

However, the first of the year brings winter doldrums for everyone, including donors. In a recent interview with King 5 News, Kang says that post-holidays donations—unlike our socks—tend to dry out. “A lot of folks donate towards the end of the year,” says Kang, “but we serve 70,000 folks throughout the year, approximately 1,500 households each week. We need food, cash donations, and volunteers all year long.”

This is because government funding is very restrictive. Kang explains that grants and monies received from the state and federal level can only be used towards food items, not other needs. “We rely on people’s donations,” says Kang, “and volunteers to constantly help out with sorting, packing, and food distribution.”

These volunteers work shifts throughout the day, Monday through Friday, at the downtown Olympia Food Pantry, Lacey Food Pantry, and Tumwater warehouse. Unrestricted donation funds are used for staffing, additional shopping, and unexpected requests.

“During the pandemic,” says Kang, “other needs came up. Things like diapers, formula, household goods, and clothing, and help to apply for or renew benefits. We want to be here to help, and we need to work together. We’re looking into wraparound services connected to work and housing and planning to expand. I was the beneficiary of a food bank, and I want to serve those in need so they can get back to their life.”

When not working, Kang loves singing, watching old movies, and exploring new trails on a nature walk. “Singing is one of my favorites as I wanted to be an opera singer many, many, MANY years ago,” he laughs.

Want to help? Sign up to volunteer, learn more about donating food, organize a food drive, or contribute directly to their work. They’ll take cars, trucks, RVs, boats, motorcycles and other vehicles and turn them into much-needed meals for local families. Keep an eye out; the team is updating its website for a more user-friendly online experience. Until then, you can follow the team on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Thurston County Food Bank provides more than just bags of mac and cheese or loaves of bread. They offer free lunches to school kids over the summer break. Give birthday bags with toys, books, warm hats, and other presents to children 12 and under. Supply Newborn Baby Bags to new moms. And any number of other free services. Consider joining Kang and the entire team in the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor today.

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