Food Deserts: Matt King of Hunger Task Force On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

Jun 20, 2024

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In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Matt King.

Matt King is the CEO of Hunger Task Force — Milwaukee’s only Free & Local Food Bank. Prior to assuming this role, he served as the Associate Director and Farm Manager. King is an anti-hunger advocate and community champion.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us about your backstory? What led you to this career path?

It all started as a 13-year-old volunteer. My family was going through a difficult time, and mother reminded me how others have it worse and encouraged me to get out in the community and do good work. So, I took the city bus to a local soup kitchen. While there, I served bread to an elderly couple who had to visit the soup kitchen twice per week for a meal in order to not go hungry. Before they left, the old man asked me if he could have an extra roll so they would have something to eat tomorrow. I did what most teenagers would do, gave him what he asked for. Also, while there, I played with a young kid who was about 3-yeard old while his mother was waiting in line to be served.

I chose my career path because I believe nobody should go hungry. Parents shouldn’t have to skip meals to feed their children. Seniors shouldn’t have to go hungry so they can afford their medications. Working families shouldn’t have to forego food to keep a roof over their heads. In our communities, this is totally unacceptable.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was living in Oregon as a new father in 2012, I got a call from Hunger Task Force asking if I was ready to move home as I was rocking my son to sleep. A representative from the organization told me about the nonprofit’s idea to start a production-scale farm in Milwaukee County to increase access to fresh produce for local food pantries. It was such an innovative concept, and I was so excited about the idea of building an important resource for the community I grew up in. Nearly 12 years later, we have a nationally recognized farm program that incorporates a nature preserve. What’s also so cool is that nearly 5,000 community volunteers help us operate our farm nationally.

Are you able to identify a tipping point in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything differently? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

My tipping point was when I realized I could admire and learn from other leaders without having to emulate them. I saw that I could draw from their styles and successes, but also operate in a way that is authentic to me. I began to humbly trust my instincts more and have the confidence to make effective decisions.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been fortunate to have several mentors during my career for whom I have an enormous amount of gratitude. My predecessor Sherrie Tussler was particularly influential on my development. She taught me how to organize a public policy issue campaign through education and research and how to elevate the voices of those who don’t have a seat at the table. She also showed why it’s important to never compromise what’s right just to please a funding source. I watched her take an unwavering stance and hold her ground while external pressure built — I admire her for that.

You are a successful leader. What three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example of each?

  • A good listener. As a leader, a key part of my role is to advise. But the truth is that I’m less often the source and more often the conduit for insights and solutions. This requires a commitment to being present, generous and honest. I have realized that I am of the most service when I create this space for others.
  • A value-driven individual. I consistently reflect on my decision-making process as a leader to verify that my decisions are grounded in my personal values and the values of our organization. Do my actions embody the values we espouse? I try to bring this to the forefront with my team so that they may have clarity in their own decisions and how they align with our mission.
  • An unwavering dedication. Maybe it’s the Midwesterner in me. Dedication and hard work are part of our identity as an organization and reflect the values of our community. I put in the hard work every day and embrace the serious responsibility that we have. I am honored to be entrusted with it.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The ultimate moral test of any government is the way it treats three groups of its citizens… those in the dawn of life…those in the shadows of life…those in the twilight of life…” — Hubert Humphrey

I often think about the work in hunger relief through the lens of a continuum. No matter what point in life somebody is in, do we have effective resources available for them? Our focus on programming for kids, mothers of young children, seniors, veterans and refugees are all good examples of this.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about food deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is?

A food desert is a neighborhood that has limited access to grocery stores or other sources of healthy and affordable food. Food deserts are also typically characterized by a significant portion of the population being low-income, or living below the poverty line, and having limited transportation. There are many different ways to measure these factors (i.e., distance to a market, income threshold and the definition of healthy and affordable), but the key is to think about reasonable access. It’s important to note that this is both a rural and urban issue.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

Food deserts are an enormous public health issue. Food access is a social determinant of health. Residents of food deserts often have nutritional deficiencies that increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease or exacerbate other health issues. We also see mental health issues like depression and anxiety worsened as a result. Food deserts can also have an economic impact as residents spend more resources. As we all know, poor nutrition has a significant impact on cognitive development and children’s ability to learn.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

Hunger Task Force employs several innovative strategies to address food deserts in our community. In 2015, Hunger Task Force launched the Mobile Market, which is a grocery-store-on-wheels that travels to high-need neighborhoods and provides fresh, healthy foods in partnership with a local grocer. All food on the Mobile Market is offered at a 50% discount.

Hunger Task Force also partners with DoorDash to deliver Stockboxes — free boxes of healthy food — to seniors in these neighborhoods. This pandemic-era innovation delivers food monthly to low-income seniors living in food deserts free of charge.

As a strategic response to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables available at food pantries, Hunger Task Force operates a 208-acre production scale Farm. The Farm annually infuses half a million pounds of locally grown produce — over 25 varieties — to food pantries and senior centers.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I’m most proud of our tradition of innovation. We’ve made continuous improvement part of our culture as an organization and that has led to models that other communities across the country have implemented. It makes me excited for the future and our ability to find new ways to serve.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need to Be Done to Address the Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options?”

  1. Fully fund SNAP & WIC. These are federal tax dollars that return to communities, have a multiplying effect in our local economies, create jobs and protect the dignity of families to choose the healthy foods that are right for their diets. During the pandemic, SNAP was funded and the demand for emergency food plummeted. Since those elevated benefits expired, food pantry traffic in our network has increased by over 45%.
  2. Food policy and planning. Urban development that includes a consideration for food access can improve the quality of food consumed by residents.
  3. Support local agriculture. Partnerships between local farmers and communities can help to ensure a reliable demand and a steady supply of healthy foods while supporting small businesses.
  4. Mobile Markets and Food Delivery Services. These options can bring fresh foods in lieu of a brick-and-mortar grocer.
  5. Support local grocery stores. Financial and logistical assistance for small grocers can help them thrive in food deserts.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Specifically related to food deserts, I would recommend further exploration of tax incentivization for businesses addressing food accessibility in these neighborhoods as well as improved transportation resources for low-income populations.

Right now, The Farm Bill is the most significant piece of legislation affecting our work. Many of the major nutrition programs that impact hunger in the U.S. are funded through Title IV of the Farm Bill. Massive cuts to SNAP are currently proposed that would be incredibly harmful.

Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I mean, if you’re putting it out there, the first person that comes to mind is Oprah. Not only did she spend part of her childhood in Milwaukee, but she is also one of the most connected figures who has been outspoken about the root causes of poverty and hunger. She gets that our work is more than just charity. It’s justice.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would encourage readers to follow Hunger Task Force on LinkedIn and join our citizen advocacy Voices Against Hunger.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.



Hunger Task Force is Milwaukee’s Free & Local food bank and Wisconsin’s anti-hunger leader. The organization’s core values are Dignity, Justice, Equity, Compassion and Stewardship. Hunger Task Force feeds people today by providing healthy and culturally appropriate food to hungry children, families and seniors in the community absolutely free of charge. Hunger Task Force also works to end future hunger by advocating for strong public policies and nutrition programs at the local, state and federal level.