When Erinn Rowe first arrived at Harvest Hope’s headquarters on Columbia’s Shop Road, the new CEO turned her desk to face the window for a view of the on-site food pantry. Seeing the community’s need firsthand can be difficult, but for Rowe, it’s a necessary reminder of why her work matters.
“Every person I see get out of their car and walk into that building is doing it because they need us there,” Rowe says. “That's really my driver. We can't stop. There's not an option to stop.”
The University of South Carolina alumna was named to the job in 2021 after five years on the organization’s board of directors, including a term as board chair. Since then, she has played an integral role in guiding South Carolina’s largest food bank’s efforts to combat food insecurity across the state.
It’s no small undertaking. One in 10 South Carolinians experiences food insecurity each day. In response, Harvest Hope distributes approximately 20 million meals each year through more than 400 food pantries, backpack programs, churches and other partner organizations in 20 counties across South Carolina.
What causes food insecurity? Oftentimes, when someone is living paycheck to paycheck, Rowe says, unexpected expenses — a rent increase, car repairs, medical issues — can wipe out their food budget. Those who seek help may have nowhere else to turn. Providing food does more than address hunger; it also gives people a chance to get back on their feet when they are most vulnerable.
“A lot of people use the word hunger, but that's really just a feeling,” she says. “We're there for that moment of food insecurity, that choice between paying a bill or buying food.”
To meet those needs effectively and get the most out of donor contributions, Rowe has approached her role with a business perspective, something she honed before joining Harvest Hope. In addition to owning a cooking school for kids, she spent a decade at Bank of America, including four years as senior treasury sales analyst. That role frequently put her in front of a multitude of clients, allowing her to see how business leaders make decisions and direct operations.
“I was able to go on client calls and tour factories and manufacturing and food distribution companies and really hear how the CEOs and C-suites created strategies for their business,” she says. “I got to learn from multiple different industries and study why decisions were made, what risks they looked at, how they created plans for down markets or increased revenue or decreased expenses and increased efficiencies.”
In her quest to improve the food bank’s business model, she has also drawn from her Professional MBA, which she earned from the Darla Moore School of Business in 2019, 20 years after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management. Returning to school later in life, she discovered, was a chance to fill the knowledge gaps that had not yet been satisfied through work.
“When I went back to get my degree, I had more life experiences. I knew exactly what I needed and also what I didn't know,” she says. “You have no idea what you don't know when you're an undergraduate, but when you get to a graduate program, especially after having worked for 20 years, you know exactly what you want to learn because you know where you need help.”
She has continued leveraging the university’s expertise since transitioning into the nonprofit sector. In addition to earning her Six Sigma certification from the Moore School, she has partnered with Sanjay Ahire, co-director of the Moore School’s Operations and Supply Chain Center, on more than a dozen projects to help improve the organization’s operations and supply chain capabilities.
Ahire’s students are currently working on a capstone project to analyze how USDA commodities are distributed throughout the state to ensure food gets to the counties where it is needed most. An earlier project streamlined trucking routes, which reduced expenses and increased Harvest Hope’s capacity to transport more food.
“Students came in, looked at our 20-county footprint on what we have to pick up from grocery stores versus distributing between our branches, and helped create efficiencies in the routes so that we were utilizing the trucks to their full capacity, meaning they were leaving full and coming back full,” she says.
Rowe also advocates for the people who need Harvest Hope’s services and works to change common misconceptions around food insecurity. Most of the food bank’s clientele are working families who have hit a rough patch, she says. Many of them are there because of circumstances beyond their control. Finding a permanent solution to the problem will mean putting aside biases, reaching across the aisle and addressing the root causes with empathy.
“It's really just putting the conversation on the table, telling everybody we're going to have to work together to change this,” she says. “It's going to be multi-political, multi-faith. But we are keeping families in their homes. We are keeping lights on. We are helping families fix their cars. What we're doing is keeping our neighbors stable. That's really what we want to do.”