Social Impact Heroes: How Karen Voci and the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation helped to distribute more than 4.6 million pounds of affordable, healthy food to low-income families
Start where you live. Creating a community or even a backyard garden and sharing your harvest with your neighbors is an effective way to form connections. Educating others on how to start their own garden and swapping recipes strengthens community bonds and emphasizes the healing power of fresh food.
Get involved in local politics. A lot of the decisions about who can grow food and where are determined at the town/city level. It’s our job to get educated on the issues and budgets and show up at the meetings where decisions are made to support local food.
Work to preserve your community’s farmlands. The American Farmland Trust reports that New England is losing 7,000 acres of scarce farmlands annually. We need state and local support for a more coordinated and accelerated strategy to save the best parcels to feed ourselves and address climate change.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Voci, President of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, the corporate philanthropy of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a leading regional health services company. She is also a Vice President of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. For the past 14 years, she has focused the Foundation’s strategic initiatives on improving access to healthy foods for families and communities in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Prior to joining Harvard Pilgrim Foundation, Ms. Voci served as Senior Vice President of Programs for The Rhode Island Foundation. Ms. Voci holds a B.A. from Simmons College and an M.A. from American University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’d like to think I discovered my career in philanthropy — but it found me in the spring of 1974. I was running children’s programs for Mayor Kevin White’s Community Schools program when several Boston area foundation staff showed up at my school with questions about my request for money for an urban summer camp. They quizzed me for what seemed like hours, but it was obvious they wanted this camp to succeed as much as I did. Better yet, they wanted to help — not just with money but with knowledge and connections. That’s what hooked me on their profession: they envisioned the world as a more equitable place and saw their jobs as putting themselves in service to Boston to make that happen. It took a few more years to get started at a foundation, and it wasn’t a straight path to becoming a foundation president. I’m still trying to act on the lessons of service I learned from that foundation visit over forty years ago.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
At the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, we provide support, financial and otherwise, to 35 local food access programs across four states and more than 400 distribution sites. All of these programs either grow, glean or deliver healthy produce to low-income families. They include a range of volunteer efforts, like community gardens, as well as a fleet of eight mobile farmer’s markets.
It’s not a single story, but what has blown me away from the beginning is witnessing people gardening next to each other who would otherwise never meet. There are gardeners from other countries, who don’t speak English as a first language, with “native” gardeners who have lived in the area for generations. The gardens bring these people together to share seeds and recipes and to form friendships that go far beyond the community garden program. What astounds me is that these gardens show our country as we all envision it could be. I tell our Foundation’s board all the time that the divided America you see on the nightly news is not America in our community gardens or mobile market stops.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Before I got my first foundation job, I had my own catering business in western Massachusetts. I was the chef and had a small team of people who helped at larger events. At one point, I made the mistake of agreeing to do a private dinner for a famous author’s birthday on the evening I was going on vacation. It was a simple menu — local cheeses and pâté, a hearty salad, our special bread, bœuf bourguignon (Julia Child’s bœuf bourguignon!) and an amazing chocolate cake. After I delivered everything and put the casseroles in the ovens, all the team had to do was start the ovens to finish the cooking and open the wine. I was off to the airport, what could go wrong? Plenty. The ovens never got started and dinner was salad, bread and cake (and lots more wine!) The hostess was not happy, and I had a reputation to repair. Important life lesson: if you make a commitment, especially if it has your name on it, you need to see it through. Even when you have a great team, you’re the leader. Showing up is 90% of success.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Since joining Harvard Pilgrim in 2007, I have focused the Foundation’s $3.2 million annual giving on preventing childhood obesity, improving access to locally grown healthy foods, supporting Harvard Pilgrim’s 1,300 employees in giving and service, and providing corporate support for non-profit organizations across New England. Over the past three years, the Foundation’s 35 Healthy Food Fund projects produced 4.6 million pounds of affordable, healthy food distributed to low-income families and communities.
Our Harvard Pilgrim colleagues have contributed over 4,200 hours of community service and nearly $600,000 annually in $500 grants available through our Foundation. Since this community grants program began in 2002, our employees have directed more than $6.3 million to thousands of organizations throughout Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In 2019, 96% of our employees either gave or served!
Can you tell us a story about an individual who was impacted by your cause?
Malik Nelson, our Bridgeport, CT Mobile Marketplace Operations Manager, is passionate about bringing healthy and fresh food to his city. Growing up in Brooklyn NY, Malik’s love of food and cooking was instilled in him at a young age by his mother and grandmother, and the ever-changing food scene of New York City. When his life took an unfortunate turn, landing him in prison, food was his salvation as he took on the job of head chef creatively providing for his fellow inmates. For Malik, “There are no bad days, only bad moments,” he says. “Food can make a difference in those moments” and “give my life and others’ more meaning.”
In his current role as a Mobile Marketplace Operations Manager with FEED (Food Equity and Economic Development Center), Malik is quick to point out that his life certainly does have more meaning since he became a leader in, as he likes to call it, “the mobile market movement.” For his Bridgeport neighbors who are his customers, food certainly can make the difference in what may be difficult times, but Malik likes to go the extra mile, pointing out that along with his responsibility of providing healthy produce, “one smile a day makes a difference.”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Start where you live. Creating a community or even a backyard garden and sharing your harvest with your neighbors is an effective way to form connections. Educating others on how to start their own garden and swapping recipes strengthens community bonds and emphasizes the healing power of fresh food.
- Get involved in local politics. A lot of the decisions about who can grow food and where are determined at the town/city level. It’s our job to get educated on the issues and budgets and show up at the meetings where decisions are made to support local food.
- Work to preserve your community’s farmlands. The American Farmland Trust reports that New England is losing 7,000 acres of scarce farmlands annually. We need state and local support for a more coordinated and accelerated strategy to save the best parcels to feed ourselves and address climate change.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think that at their core, leaders are problem solvers. It is the job of a leader to forge a path for their team and help solve the challenges that are ahead. On a day-to-day basis, most people are looking to leaders to help them get the job done. The best leaders are those that can see the big picture and strategize solutions.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- That opportunities for women would proliferate so much faster than we expected when I graduated college in 1970. Very early in my career, an important man told me that I’d “never be the president of anything” because I’d just become a mother. I hope he didn’t have money on that prediction!
- That you have to put yourself out there — take on the assignments no one else wants, go to the places where no one else wants to go. If I had listened to the accepted wisdom at the community foundation in RI in the early ’90s, I never would have tackled the health care projects for low-income kids and families that turned into Neighborhood Health Plan of RI and a network of dental operatories at the community health centers. When you take the road “less traveled” all kinds of vistas appear that you would otherwise never have seen.
- That the path to success is not always straightforward. I dropped out of a Ph.D, program, married, followed my husband to the south of France, moved around all over NE, had two kids, renovated 3 old houses and kept finding/creating jobs in and out of philanthropy — always concerned about my future! I wish I’d known at the time that the variety and depth of skills and experience I was gaining along the way would be invaluable and sure to pay off. It would have prevented a lot of sleepless nights.
- That your kids will be OK. When my boys were little and my husband was traveling for work, I’d put them to bed in their clothes so I could get them up and out for daycare. We ate the same menus every week for 19 years and one night was pizza. I paid a high school student to watch them after school/sports and I’m pretty sure he let them climb on the roof. I worried or felt guilty all the time, but they turned out just fine. Kids are resilient and what we’ve worried most about they rarely remember.
- That you should stay out of the sun. Like many women of my generation, I really wished I’d paid attention to that one!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’d hope that all of us would take small actions to make healthy food available and affordable for all people. It could be as simple as making sure there are places available for kids to have meals during the summer when schools are closed. We can start community gardens or teach gardening skills to a neighbor so they can grow their own food. I’ve seen that small, personal actions can get others involved and make a huge impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My team will tell you that it’s “panic early” — which is my variation on “be prepared.” You can never go wrong getting someplace before the appointment, doing extra homework on an assignment or having a back-up plan. At best, you have an advantage and at worst it gives you extra time to fix any screw-ups.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would love to meet with a woman who is demographically similar to me but holds a completely different set of beliefs about the world and our place in it. I don’t think there are enough opportunities to get to know people who look at life from completely opposite perspectives.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!