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GENEROCITY: New ED of The Food Trust willing to take risks

(Editor's note: This story originally appeared here in Generocity, Greater Philadelphia's source for local nonprofit news, giving and networking. Sign up here to become more engaged, whether it's for donating, promoting or engaging.

There's an unmistakable California lilt in the voice of Yael Lehmann, executive director of Philadelphia nonprofit The Food Trust, and a San Francisco native. "I moved here at the end of 2000," she said. "I'd never been here, or lived outside of SF, and I had this grad-school fantasy. My only reference was Robin Williams movies with kids in the library with the desks with lamps on them."

Concurrent with earning her masters in Social Policy and Practice from UPenn, Lehmann was promoted from assistant director to executive director of the nonprofit, supervising everything from more than 30 farmers markets featuring exclusively local growers to coordinating nutrition education and other programs promoting access to affordable, healthy food in low-income neighborhoods.

She sat down for a chat with Generocity.org to talk about the necessity of risk-taking in the nonprofit world, comparing wardrobe notes with Michelle Obama, and why girls should play bass as loud as possible.

You've been with the Food Trust since 2001 and Executive Director since 2006. In ten years you must have done it all… aren't you bored by now?
The reason I love my job is there is no day to day… if you like to know what you're doing from 9-5 every day, it is not that! I'm never bored and I have no idea what might happen… We do stuff that is a little risky, and we try to be creative, too, so that keeps me motivated and really engaged.

When we opened up the Headhouse Farmers Market at Second and Lombard in the Shambles, many people had tried and failed many times to set up events there. We didn't know at all what would happen when launching Night Market, or if people would even show up. One thing I believe in is trying to do things where you don't know the outcome… we had no idea how many people would show up! Everyone ran out of food after the first hour.

I was at that first Night Market (East Passyunk Ave.). It was really funny because people were waiting in line for an hour-plus for something like a taco… when you can walk a block in any direction and get great tacos.
[Laughing] I'm sorry! We just had no idea what would happen. The area restaurants did well that night, when there was no more food. The first Night Market definitely flopped.

The Food Trust's work has been recognized by everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. What do you think your leadership has brought to the organization that has helped made it so successful?
I started with the organization in 2001, working closely with founder Dwayne Perry. It was a really small place then – just 4 people here – so I've had to wear every hat in the agency. I've been out to schools, our farmers markets, I made keys for people, I did everything. When I came on, I knew the place really well, but it's really the staff who are so incredible. I am definitely not the reason for the recognition!

Are there things you pay a lot of attention to that surprise you?
I'm turning 44 next month, and I was in my late thirties when I came on – it was a big learning period for me, I learned a lot about just running a business. I had always been on program side, in the research world, so the payroll, digging into financial statements, moving our offices… just in the functions of running a business I learned a lot. When I came on I learned pretty quickly that this would be part of my position as well, not just coming up with ideas for programs. My mother's a CPA and I worked for her while I was an undergrad, answering phones and whatever, but my experience working for her in her office paid off for me later in life.

What's the thing you least like doing everyday? Every job has its headache…
Oh yeah definitely! Half of our funding is federal money, so wading through all the paper work can be tough. If you come to the office you'll see tons of binders everywhere, with paper work you have to submit to the state to go to the federal government. Luckily, we have Karima Rose on staff here, who is the mastermind! I'm very grateful for that funding; it's totally worth it – we're doing nutrition education in low income schools in Philly and Reading, and it's a huge part of that funding.

Is there anything that brings a tear to your eye when you think back on what The Food Trust has achieved?
There are kind of huge tearjerker moments, like when Headhouse launched and all these people showed up. I had the opportunity to meet the First Lady twice, and each time it was really hard for me to keep it together. When I think about how Night Markets have evolved, we've gotten a lot better at it… and I think this year will be so much better. At the last one in Chinatown, DJ Fox was playing and the crowd was just kind of watching him, but no one was dancing and it was mildly awkward. I think he just went into a particular song and the whole crowd bum rushed the middle of the street, and all of us are jumping up and down dancing right under the Chinatown Friendship Gate. It was so unexpected and fun to just dance in the middle of the street.

What was it like to meet First Lady Michelle Obama? Was she as genuine in person as she seems in the press?
You rarely get to meet your heroes in life. She's my inspiration. The First Lady is fairly tall, beyond gorgeous, and very warm. When I was lucky enough to visit the White House in July last year, I almost fell over when she told me that she also owned the exact same dress I was wearing that day! Her Let's Move campaign is a multi-faceted approach to solving food access issues and increasing physical activity, but even more than that, it has started a country-wide conversation about food and healthy living. It's a conversation and campaign that could change the way we think about eating as dramatically as government anti-smoking efforts did. With the First Lady as spokeswomen, this is our moment, when the attention to and momentum of the food movement could bring about real change across the country.

I read you play bass in a band, Happy Accident, with your husband Blake and Brian "Bucky" Lang. How role does music play in your life?
Music is super important to me. It's really fun to plug in the bass and just play super loud. Every girl should do it! Bass or drums or whatever, it's the best feeling ever. It's a good excuse for all of us to drink beer, and this fun thing to have – Blake and I have an 8 year old son, so this is something we do together. I also volunteer with Girls Rock Philly, even though my schedule is insane. I just love music so much, and I think it's so empowering for girls and women to participate in music. I'm all for Philly music.

If you could give one piece of advice to others working in the nonprofit sector, what would it be?
I would say that I think one of the best things we did early on was bring in a research director, Dr. Alison Carpin. From the very beginning we were able to carefully evaluate and look at the effectiveness of the programs. Alison has been posting a ton, and we continue to publish: it's a way to legitimize the work you are doing. I think that was a great thing to do – we did that even when we had a really small staff. In the end it's just about finding and hiring really smart and effective people. It sounds maybe too simple, but that's what is it.

Keep up with The Food Trust by following them on Twitter @TheFoodTrust, and "Like" them on Facebook. Look out for a series of events celebrating the organizations' 20th anniversary throughout 2012.

Photo via Yael Lehmann

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