Jessy Lee’s first day as executive director of Whitefish’s North Valley Food Bank was Valentine’s Day, a fitting time to begin the process of falling in love with her new community and new job.
Part of that process has involved quickly learning the ropes and getting her bearings through full-on cultural and professional immersion.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said earlier this week. “It’s been a crash course in learning about the Whitefish community, finding my way way around.”
“It’s an honor to serve Whitefish community members in this capacity,” she added. “I grew up in Billings and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to continue serving my fellow Montanans.”
Lee is only the third executive director in the food bank’s history, replacing SueAnn Grogan-King, who was at the helm for four years after replacing the late June Munski-Feenan, the organization’s founder. Munski-Feenan ran the food bank, originally out of her garage, for four decades until her death at age 86 in 2014.
A North Valley Food Bank press release called Munski-Feenan “our community’s own Mother Teresa.” Lee feels privileged to have the opportunity to fill those big shoes.
“She’s got quite the legacy,” Lee said. “She had these longstanding relationships with basically everyone in the community, and she was able to get a lot done through those relationships. And I think it’s really important for somebody in my position to continue to foster those relationships and continue to keep people engaged and make sure we’re being the best stewards of people’s resources as we can.”
Lee brings her own solid foundation of experience, having worked off and on at the Missoula Food Bank for the last decade. A Montana native originally from Billings, Lee moved to Missoula in 2006 and received her bachelor’s of social work degree from the University of Montana. She completed her master’s of public administration at UM just before accepting her new assignment in Whitefish.
Lee was awarded the MPA/Nonprofit Public Service Award recipient for the 2018-2019 academic year for her “commitment to excellence in public service and academic excellence.”
Her work with the Missoula Food Bank was broad, including both advocacy work and program management.
“I care about humanity; it’s that simple,” she said. “I dove into the work and eventually oversaw all programs at Missoula Food Bank. It was the pleasure of my life.”
That experience dovetails with her academic studies to form a strong backbone for her new job.
“I know my way around the food security universe pretty well,” she said. “I’ve managed some of the federal and state grants that provide nutrition to seniors and children, so I have a pretty good idea from the government perspective and private nonprofit perspective.”
Jim Cummings, North Valley Food Bank’s board president, said Lee emerged from a field of strong candidates.
“We are thrilled to have Jessy join our team,” Cummings said. “We had several well-qualified candidates. We are confident we found the right person for the job.”
Lee is eager to continue strengthening anti-hunger and food-security efforts in Whitefish and beyond.
“Whitefish as a community has really come together to address things like summer meals for children and weekend (Backpack Assistance programs) that are administered outside of the food bank environment,” she said.
“I think there’s some work to do beyond Whitefish,” she added, noting the need for more food access in places like Bad Rock Canyon, which she believes North Valley Bank can play a role in developing even though it’s outside of Whitefish.
“If you have the infrastructure like we do, I think there’s a moral obligation to do so,” she said. “North Valley Food Bank is in the incredible position of having a new facility and a strong volunteer base to be able to make things like that happen.”
For more information about North Valley Food Bank, visit www.northvalleyfoodbank.org.