Sophie Albert is originally from Germany and earned her master of disaster management from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, while her professional resume includes stints in Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Houston.
Now she can add Whitefish to that list.
Albert is in her first month as executive director of the North Valley Food Bank (NVFB), replacing Jessy Lee, who relocated to Missoula after two years, during which she guided the food bank through substantial growth driven by organic demand and accelerated by pandemic-caused food insecurity.
Albert is only the food bank’s fourth executive director since it was established as the Whitefish Food Bank in 1977 in the garage of the late June Munski-Feenan, who helmed the operation for more than 35 years. SueAnn Grogan-King was the director for four years before Lee.
“I am thrilled to join the fantastic team at the North Valley Food Bank and truly grateful for the warm welcome by the Whitefish community,” Albert said.
Albert’s husband started a company based out of Whitefish, and the couple moved to the area from Houston, where Albert most recently served as director for refugee programs at a nonprofit called The Alliance, leading the COVID-19 response for refugee and immigrant populations there. A major component of that job involved food security.
“There was a strong focus on getting nutritious food to people during the pandemic and ensuring access to every community member, not only those with a car being able to drive up to the food bank but also those not being able to get out of their house,” she said.
In addition to disaster response in places such as Indonesia and Pakistan, which heavily involved food distribution and security, Albert also has a background in overseas educational programming. She joins NVFB at a time of sustained expansion, both in services and infrastructure through a remodel of its Whitefish location.
The food bank provided 14,244 weekly grocery services in 2018, a figure that increased to 17,920 food boxes in 2019 and more than 30,000 last year. The food bank has expanded its hours and its routes to serve Olney, Trego, Evergreen and Essex with mobile food pantries, and it also makes intermittent deliveries to Libby, Yaak and Troy.
“I think there’s been a lot of hidden hunger in the northern Flathead Valley,” MaryBeth Morand, NVFB’s director of development, said. “And people in Olney and Trego didn’t know these resources were available to them. It was through word of mouth that they found out, and it snowballed as people found out we were delivering up there.”
Lee came from the Missoula Food Bank armed with a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Montana, and Morand said she was a perfect candidate to lead NVFB through its rapid growth.
“We were really lucky that she was the person in charge during that time,” Morand said. “She really knew the infrastructure of an expanding food bank, and when it came to organizational development she was a genius.”
Morand says Albert is a similarly ideal leader to pick up where Lee left off, bringing diverse experience, energy and the right personality to the job.
“She’s a delightful person,” Morand said. “I think she’ll not only manage the growth, but she’ll also manage the team really well.”
The remodel, which begins next month, will add a space to relocate and improve the food bank’s refrigeration and freezer operations. Additionally, a new kitchen will enable NVFB to hold community programs that could potentially include nutrition education, onsite meat processing and more.
The changes will also allow NVFB to store more food and take on endeavors such as processing fresh tomatoes into tomato sauce to serve more people in the community.
Once the pandemic is over, the expanded open space created by the remodel will facilitate more choose-your-own shopping opportunities rather than customers receiving preselected food boxes.
Albert called it an honor to be selected by the NVFB board and said she’s “dedicated to further grow the operations as we serve more people.” Moreover, she hopes to work with other food banks and community resources to address the root causes of food insecurity, including wages, health insurance and affordable housing.
“I look forward to strengthen our work with underrepresented and marginalized communities to listen, learn and collaboratively dismantle a system of broad inequities leading to poverty,” she said.
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