When Stuart Haniff was a young boy, his father, a pediatrician who offered services to low income patients, would go to the emergency room late at night to see patients who would pay him $5.
This concept didn’t make sense to the young Haniff, who's now in his early 50s, but the answer he received when he questioned it would stick with him.
“He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Because if I don’t, who will?’”
Haniff remembers the interaction with his father well. The newly appointed chief development officer at Harry Chapin Food Bank, a hunger-relief organization that serves Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Lee counties, has applied that notion throughout the years since. “If we’re not here, what happens to the people who are depending on us?”
His career with food banks in general isn’t that extensive in terms of time. But the experiences he’s had at the senior level makes him well seasoned.
A mentor of Haniff’s offered him a position at Feeding America Riverside — San Bernardino, California, as chief philanthropy officer 10 years ago. Then, in 2019, he became the CEO at The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley in Pharr, Texas.
In the first 18 months of that job, Haniff led the food bank through the pandemic, one of the worst winter freezes to hit Texas and a hurricane that directly hit the food bank.
Amid all that, Haniff found ways to lift up his employees — a nod to his leadership style. During the fall of the pandemic, for example, pumpkin patches were closed down. Using the food banks’ farm and garden, Haniff found a way to build their own pumpkin patch, complete with pumpkins and hay bales.
“It was more than a pumpkin patch,” he says. “It (showed) everyone how powerful and vital they were.”
As one might after three extremes, he needed a change of pace and took a role as vice president of philanthropy at Feeding South Florida last year. Still not finding the right fit, a recruiter for Harry Chapin reached out earlier this year. As he was familiar with the brand and the community, it was an easy yes.
“I was excited for the possibility of rebuilding a community after the hurricane,” he says.
Haniff says there’s a misconception about the food bank that because it’s named after well-known singer Harry Chapin that it’s well-off and doesn’t need support. But just like other places across the region, Haniff says the food bank’s needs have skyrocketed. It currently feeds 250,000 monthly — equal to about three million pounds of food. Last fiscal year, the food bank distributed over 35 million pounds of food.
“It’s so difficult to understand the problem because I don’t know that we’ve done a good enough job of telling the story of the problem,” he says of food insecurity.
Conversations surrounding a new facility are in the works. Haniff is hoping to make it happen in the next few years. The current building in Fort Myers, he adds, was originally designed as a warehouse with low ceilings, so making use out of racks is reduced.
In the meantime, the food bank is unveiling a new program in August: a new mobile grocery experience called Fresh Force, which will bring the groceries to the community.
Haniff says the vehicle — a grocery store in a trailer that’s being pulled by a trailer — will have a schedule for the two to three days a week it operates. Each stop is expected to serve 20-40 families. Haniff says it took a couple hundred thousand dollars to get the program started, made possible through funding.
Food banking hasn’t always been Haniff’s career, as evidenced by his background as an entertainment publicist and event planner. But the time he spent organizing special events and galas for celebrity charities hasn’t gone to waste.
While in Southern California, where he was born and raised, one of the first events he organized was a gala to raise money for a mobile health clinic. Haniff remembers thinking a lot of visits to that clinic — bipolar disease, HIV, teen pregnancies — were similar to daytime soap opera storylines. He came up with the idea of hosting a Daytime Emmy Awards gala on the West Coast. Until then, those shows had always been hosted in New York.
“We created so much buzz that ABC made the decision to move the Emmy’s to Hollywood,” Haniff says. More than 100 soap opera stars showed up and the gala raised $250,000.
While Haniff enjoyed his time in the spotlight, he doesn’t question his decision to become involved with food banks. Being in the entertainment industry made him happy, he says, but working at food banks “moves my heart.”
It also drives his push to bring some glitz and glamour to Harry Chapin.
“I would love to bring a little Hollywood to Southwest Florida,” he says, adding he hopes to host a gala in event-filled Naples.
Despite his burning passion to help the less fortunate, Haniff has some days when he doesn’t want to get out of bed. But the drive Haniff learned from his father has also been instilled in his own daughter, Hilary, who's 23, with Haniff receiving little reminders from her like, “‘If you don’t get up in the morning, how are other people going to get up in the morning?’
And, “‘Because you came here today, someone’s able to eat.’”
Amanda Postma is a business reporter covering Sarasota and Manatee counties. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2018, Amanda was a reporter for a small-town newspaper in Missouri before becoming a marketing associate for a career resource startup in St. Louis.