Eileen Spring, executive director of Food Gatherers, is a first generation American. Spring’s parents, who hail from Ireland, met at a St. Patrick’s Day party in New York City.
Spring was introduced to the food and drink industry at a young age as her mom worked as a waitress while her father was a bartender. Her parents worked well into their eighties.
“It was cheaper to bring me along to the various places they worked than to hire a babysitter so some of my earliest memories are of hanging out in the back of a restaurant kitchen folding napkins or polishing silverware. [The] chefs always made sure I was fed,” quipped Spring.
Working since the young age of twelve, Spring has experienced every aspect of restaurant service from bus girl and waitress to dishwasher and short order cook.
Spring attended Hofstra University, majoring in English, History and Philosophy. “I was always an activist at college. After graduation I worked on a handful of ill-fated political campaigns (all while waitressing of course),” Spring explains.
Early years in Ann Arbor
After graduating from Hofstra, Spring moved to Ann Arbor and enrolled in the American Culture doctoral program at the University of Michigan. While earning her MA degree, Spring taught writing and cultural studies at the University of Michigan for several semesters.
In her longtime role as public affairs coordinator at Planned Parenthood, she met board member Paul Saginaw, co-owner of Zingerman’s and founder of Food Gatherers “At a Grillin’ for Food Gatherers fundraiser, Paul, wearing a carrot-costume and smoking a cigar, recruited me to join Food Gatherers. How could I resist?” Spring recalls fondly.
Spring became Food Gatherers’ CEO/President in the mid 1990s.”My parents were at first confused that I ended up feeding people as a career but it seems rather poetic to me,” Spring said. “I have always found food makers, growers and servers to be the most generous and creative people.”.
In March 2020 when the pandemic began, Spring said Food Gatherers’ “business model was turned upside down overnight. We lost most of our labor force, about 7,000 volunteers. We lost half of our food supply and we witnessed the most significant and dramatic increase in food insecurity ever.” Early in the pandemic Spring recalls there was a lot of conflicting or confusing information and definitely no protocol for how to respond. “If you remember back to the early days, people thought that the virus could be transmitted through boxes, even including food, so it was a really scary time.”
One of the things that kept Food Gatherers going was Governor Whitmer’s responsiveness. “Within a couple weeks members from Michigan AIR National Guard showed up and worked shoulder to shoulder for a year packing emergency food boxes,”Spring said.
Partner agencies also demonstrated great resiliency. “Unlike many other parts of the country, our network of distribution partners quickly adapted and stayed open,” Spring said. “We scaled up pretty quickly and distributed nearly 30% more food than we had prior to the pandemic.”
Since the pandemic, the amount of food they receive from food rescue has declined mainly, Spring explains, due to changes in consumer behavior. In addition, the amount of food from federal sources has declined significantly although the need for food assistance is still high. Therefore, Spring says, they have had to rely “more on purchased food which has led to significant operating cost increases.”
Those in a position to support the efforts efforts of Food Gatherers can donate here.
“I’m proud that we have lasted as long as we have and continue to be responsive to community needs,” Spring said. “Our efforts provide the equivalent of 17,000 meals each day to our neighbors. Last year, the number of visits to a program supported by FG was enough to fill the Big House (Michigan Stadium) more than 7 times.”
More about Spring
When not gathering, Spring enjoys traveling, playing Scrabble and dining at the area’s numerous wonderful local restaurants. As many local eateries are food rescue partners, Spring can’t fairly pick just one favorite.
Spring recently flew to Washington D.C. to attend the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference. There she met with elected officials to discuss the upcoming Farm Bill and to advocate for policies to help neighbors facing food insecurity.
With her Irish heritage, of course, one of her favorite holidays is St. Patrick’s Day. However, even though she is Irish and her parents even met on this auspicious occasion, Spring said she “never loved the traditional green beer at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations so I started a Potato Party tradition. My parents served potatoes at every dinner…without fail. In honor of them, I invite guests to bring a potato inspiration. Often it’s a dish of some sort but it could be a potato print or sculpture or poem.”
Spring encourages community members to access Food Gatherers’ food resources if in need of food assistance. “Harnessing the power of food to set a table for all of our community members is joyous work,” Spring said.