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April 2001

Thousands Bank on Clem Eckert
and the Food Bank

by Joseph RADDER

Clem Eckert is a humble man. “When I played football for the old Bishop Fallon High School we lost every game,” he said. It took some probing, but we learned that at 5’11” he was one of the biggest players on the team, and that it was the first season for football at Fallon.

Clem Eckert is one of those Buffalo natives who spent considerable time working out of town, but wasn’t really happy until he came home.

Born in Buffalo in 1934, one of Clem Eckert’s fondest moments was when his sister, Mary, was born when he was age 10. He was in school at the time at Mt. St. Joseph’s. “I had a really good time there,” he said. “And I have lasting memories of a very good education by the Sisters of the Order of St. Joseph.”

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Four generations: grandfather, James Fennell; great grandmother, Nora Fennell; mother, Mary and Clem.

The Eckert family in 1948: dad, Clem, Sr.; sister, Mary; Clem, Jr. and mom, Mary.

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Holding his dad’s 1935 Ford from rolling.

“I was an extremely happy teenager,” Clem says. “The highlight of my young life was the day I turned 16. I went right down and got my driver’s permit. And I went to work in Loblaw’s supermarket at 1439 Kensington that very same day.”

Little did he know at the time that the food business in general and Loblaw’s in particular would become his life’s work.

After college (Canisius and Bryant & Stratton) he continued to build a successful career at Loblaw’s, working in all aspects of the business. Eventually, Loblaw’s sent him to Syracuse to be their office manager there. But after three years he was pleased to be back in Buffalo. During that time he also served nine years in the Air National Guard at the Niagara Falls Air Force Base, achieving the rank of sergeant.

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At graduation from Bishop Fallon High School in 1952.

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First car, 1949 Mercury, leaving for Niagara Falls Air Base.

In the mid-’70s all the Loblaw’s markets became Bell’s, a division of the Peter J. Schmitt Co. Clem spent 14 years at Schmitt, starting in the produce department and eventually becoming executive vice president.

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Receiving his first volunteer award from Red Feather fund drive (now United Way) in 1960 in Syracuse, NY.

In 1976 he was offered a position at Twin Fair which he accepted. However he was not involved in the food department there, and by 1980 his desire to get back to the food business was overpowering, so he joined Tripifoods as assistant to the president. He had been at Tripi for three years when an opportunity arose in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I took the job, but I just didn’t seem to fit in down there,” he said. If truth be told, he really wanted to come back to Buffalo, which he did in 1984, rejoining the Tripifoods organization. “I stayed there another eleven years,” Clem Eckert told us.

“In 1995 I felt it was time to retire. Within a few months, however, I was bored and found myself looking around for something to do.”

It was then that his friend Ralph Kushner invited him to take a tour of the Food Bank, the Food Bank is a non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of the hungry with nutritious food supplies and information on nutrition while educating the public on the magnitude of the hunger problem.

Clem Eckert was so favorably impressed with the Food Bank that he took a position there right away. In May 1997 he was appointed executive director of the organization.

A tour of the Food Bank on Holt Street in Buffalo is sure to overwhelm the first-time visitor. We never expected to see such a large operation. Two or three huge connected warehouses contain vast amounts of foods of every description. Walk-in coolers and walk-in freezers are massive.

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Demonstrating new high density pallet storage system.

In a central area foods are made up into orders for 469 different agencies...food pantries, soup kitchens, snack programs, group homes, adult and child daycare centers, shelters, summer camps, kids’ cafes and faith-based pantries.

These organizations are assessed a shared maintenance fee averaging about 6 1/2 cents a pound for whatever food they order, whether it’s packaged, canned, fresh or frozen. This incredibly low assessment is made possible by large and frequent donations of food by over 100 different companies...food processors, distributors, restaurants, manufacturers, retailers and farmers. Additional food is purchased with donations and grants from numerous sources, including foundations, the government, schools, professional sports teams and the generous community of Western New York.

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Kickoff, Buffalo Bills “Cans from fans” fund drive. Hugo Kahn,
event co-chairs Wade and Laurie Phillips and Clem Eckert.

One after another, all day long, agency trucks from the four counties of Cattaraugus, Chatauqua, Erie and Niagara, back up to the Food Bank loading dock to pick up their orders. Pick-ups are scheduled in advance to prevent traffic jams at the loading dock.

Clem Eckert is proud to say, “Over 12 million pounds of product were distributed in 2000, and we expect to exceed that number this year.”

He credits much of the success of the Food Bank to his mentor, E.W. Dann Stevens, chairperson emeritus. “He has been a tremendous help to me over the years,” Clem says, “as is our board president, Rob Drago.”

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Press conference, Supermarket Check Out Hunger 2001 fund drive at the Food Bank.

“We owe so much to our founders,” he said. “If it weren’t for Angeline Costner, John Di Biase, Burt Flickinger Jr., Dann Stevens, Mary Stevens, Ruth Kahn Stovroff, Carolyn Thomas and Helen Wicher there would be no Food Bank as we know it today. Our current board members and advisory committee keep us on the even keel established by our founders.”

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Opening ceremony of renovated facility in 1999, unveiling Food Bank founders portrait—Angeline Costner, John Palmer, Carolyn Thomas, Clem Eckert, Helen Urban, Dann Stevens and Helen Wicher.

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Clem is proud of the mission and vision of the Food Bank.

Clem Eckert is almost as proud of the Food Bank as he is of his family. His daughter, Susan Hughes, is a successful freelance accountant. Susan’s son, Aric, Clem’s grandson, is a sophomore at Kenmore West.

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Clem, grandson Aric, daughter Susan and son-in-law Joe Hughes
at Aric’s graduation from St. Paul’s, Kenmore, NY in 1999.

In 1990, Clem married Anne Horton, a teacher at Alden High School and chair of the school’s business department. She is also director of the Alden Teacher’s Center. “We met in January 1990,” Clem says. “And we were married on March 1, 1990.” Incidentally, their New York State license place number is “3 ONE 90”.

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Clem and his wife Anne on their wedding day, March 1, 1990.

Another activity worth noting is Clem Eckert’s participation in “America’s Second Harvest”, an organization dedicated to ending hunger in the U.S.

Always sharing credit for the success of the Food Bank, Clem Eckert wouldn’t let us leave without listening to praise for his staff. “We have 38 dedicated people here,” he said “employees and volunteers. Without their hard work and high standards of integrity, we could not function.”

Indeed, hundreds deserve credit for the success of the Food Bank, thousands depend on it, and above all The Food Bank of Western New York depends on Clem Eckert’s steady hand at the helm.

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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