EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP—Debra Vizzi walked along rows of canned and boxed food at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey Southern Branch on a Monday afternoon.
Wearing a bubblegum pink tailored jacket and black slacks, Vizzi talked with employees in the food bank’s warehouse about their work and upcoming projects.
To an outsider, Vizzi, 53, looks the part of CEO with her refined appearance, confident demeanor and articulate speech. Most people wouldn’t know she grew up hungry in foster care and, at times, out on the streets.
“I know what it’s like to be a hungry child,” she said. “Here I am now, the CEO of the largest anti-hunger, anti-poverty organization in the state, and it’s because of this position that I get to share my story and let other kids know that you can make your lives useful.”
Vizzi was given up for adoption at birth and grew up in group homes starting at 12 years old. At times, living in foster homes and shelters, Vizzi ran away when she was physically and sexually abused.
She was not adequately fed in those placements, she said, and her food access became worse while out on her own as a child on the streets of New York City.
“I was going to soup kitchens and stuff like that,” Vizzi said. “They were serving food, but they weren’t engaging. I’ve also had celiac disease since I was a kid and I wished when I went to a shelter or pantries that they would have helped provide specialized food to satisfy my health issue as well as my hunger.”
The food bank, which is headquartered in Hillside, Union County, and has a southern branch in Egg Harbor Township, increases access to affordable, healthy food for low-income individuals and families.
The food bank distributed more than 43 million pounds of food through its brick and mortar pantries, mobile pantries and other feeding programs, according to the nonprofit’s 2016 report.
Vizzi, who became CEO in September 2015, helps oversee hundreds of monetary donations, thousands of food donations and a large network of employees and volunteers.
It’s tough work, but Vizzi loves it, she said. After jumping from place to place growing up, Vizzi met a social worker who helped her grow and develop goals into her adulthood.
It was this social worker who inspired Vizzi to put herself through the State University College at Buffalo and Rutgers University to become a clinical social worker.
“The troubling thing is that those scars from your past are not visible to the eye,” she said. “You can’t see the residual effects, so one could argue that part of my evolution as CEO has been to be that voice, to make my story useful. It helps make sense out of the chaos and madness.”
When Vizzi meets clients of the food bank who are looking for help to feed themselves and their families, she knows how they’re feeling and how important the food bank is in communities.
She and her own family have made vacation trips to the Cape May County beaches and she even lived in Brigantine for several years. Her time in South Jersey has taught her how prevalent childhood food insecurity is in this area of the state.
“These counties we serve here are sometimes overlooked,” Vizzi said. “There are record numbers down here in food insecurity rates, people still struggling with residual effects from Hurricane Sandy and communities being affected by casino closures and a seasonal workforce.”
In addition to improving existing programs and partnerships at the food bank, Vizzi said, she draws from her own experiences when looking into the future.
Her goals include expanding summer feeding programs, creating specialized pantries to better serve children and adults with food allergies and other digestive medical issues and to reduce stigma surrounding food assistance programs.
Vizzi knows what it’s like to live in poverty, without regular, healthy meals. She doesn’t want others to go through what she did, but wants people to know if they do, they can still be successful in life.
“We not only want to feed bellies, we want to feed the soul,” she said. “Feeding the hungry is a labor of love. Our task isn’t a job, it’s a vocation.
“In the same way for me, going from an abused foster child to CEO — I didn’t get there alone. As adults, we become the baton passers. People made me well enough to pass the torch on to help others.”