Quick Take:

Willy Elliott-McCrea, a central figure in California’s food-bank ecosystem, will step aside in the summer of 2022. “He should never be taken for granted,” Second Harvest’s board chair said. “When it gets hard, Willy steps up in a way that most people couldn’t.”

After 43 years of working in local food banks, the past 33 of them as the executive director and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank in Watsonville, Willy Elliott-McCrea has announced his retirement.

One of Santa Cruz County’s most prominent nonprofit leaders said Thursday he will be retiring in the summer of 2022, just in time to mark the organization’s 50th birthday.

“I just believe that after 30 years, it’s the right time for the organization to find a new leader to carry on the work for the next 30 years,” said Elliott-McCrea, 68.

“He should never be taken for granted,” said Second Harvest board chair Tricia Wynne. “When it gets hard, Willy steps up in a way that most people couldn’t.”

A onetime architecture student at Berkeley and later a political science student at UC Santa Cruz, Elliott-McCrea was making leather belts in the 1970s-era Santa Cruz company Lazy Day Leather when lunch with a friend presented another opportunity. That friend has just taken over at the county nonprofit Food Nutrition Services, Second Harvest’s predecessor organization.

“Well, he said, ‘My driver and warehouse manager just got a DUI,’” remembered Elliott-McCrea, who lives in Soquel with his wife, Katie. “And I thought, ‘I know trucks and I know inventory, I could do this.’”

That was 1978, and within a couple of months, he was also the organization’s purchasing agent. A decade later, he ascended to the Food Bank’s top position.

Since he’s taken leadership, he and his organization have worked to feed thousands of people locally, most crucially following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the 2008 recession, and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic/CZU fires.

The quake struck only a year after he had assumed control over the Food Bank, and Second Harvest went from serving about 15,000 people a month to about 25,000 people a week. “I was 35,” he said, “but in about two weeks, my hair turned white.”

From the floods of 1982 and 1995, to various fires and economic disasters, Second Harvest has worked to provide families with a secure food supply. But the pandemic was a disaster of a different dimension.

“It was all (of the previous disasters) rolled into one,” he said. Typically, pre-pandemic, Second Harvest provided an average of 300 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables per person to about 17,000 households. Elliott-McCrea said that number has increased about 70% since the pandemic shutdown. For the year that ended June 30, he said that Food Harvest distributed nearly 13.5 million pounds of food, a number he expects to set a new baseline.

“I think that the need for food bank services in the community will not go back to pre-pandemic levels for a number of reasons, (including) the continued escalation of the price of housing,” he said.

“He’s been able to navigate through tough times,” said friend and colleague Tim Brattan, the executive director of Grey Bears in Santa Cruz, “and I’ve watched him being so creative with what he’s doing. I just really look at him as someone who is a pillar of truth and clarity.”

Elliott-McCrea is also a central figure in the state’s food-bank ecosystem. He was, in fact, co-founder and the first president of the California Association of Food Banks.

Second Harvest is a central component of the history of food banks in the U.S. Growing out of free-breakfast programs initiated by the Black Panthers, Second Harvest was the first food bank in California, and the second such organization in the United States.

During the pandemic, Second Harvest has been using National Guard troops to help distribute food. Board chair Wynne credited Elliott-McCrea with bringing in the National Guard, with the help of Rep. Jimmy Panetta. “He’s just so loved and admired,” she said. “People appreciate his common sense and his work ethic and his intelligence.”

With the National Guard set to be redeployed, one of Elliott-McCrea’s goals for his final year at the helm is to reinstitute a volunteer program in the food bank’s warehouses. He is also intent on continuing the organization’s goals of stressing nutrition and battling the persistent stigma attached to taking free food.

The Second Harvest board now begins the process of finding his replacement. “Willy’s parting gift is to give us enough time to get ourselves organized,” Wynne said.

“The Food Bank is not just for poor people,” Elliott-McCrea said. “The Food Bank is about building a healthy community for everyone by making sure that making sure everyone has access to healthy food, and knows how to use it.”

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...