“Serving people” takes on new meaning for Purdue hospitality graduate

Written by: Rebecca Hoffa

Kier Crites
Kier Crites

During a year spent navigating the challenges of a global pandemic, Purdue Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) alumna Kier Crites, alongside her team at Food Finders Food Bank, put together creative strategies to continue supporting the food bank’s 16-county service area with the resources it needed during difficult times. This included transforming a former grocery store building into a new fresh-market pantry in the course of only a few months.

As chief engagement officer, Crites oversees all the public-facing aspects of the food bank, from programs and volunteers to marketing and community relations. She said the food bank relies heavily on volunteers and the community to sustain its programs. One year ago, during an uncertain time when the country began to go on lockdown and Purdue students were sent home, the food bank was left figuring out what to do.

“Our volunteers were disappearing left and right,” Crites said. “All of our program staff basically had to change what they were doing. In the course of 48 hours, they had new roles in order to meet the demands of the pandemic.”

The pantry, which was then in a 1,500-square-foot space had to be closed to the public, and the staff set up alternative means for helping people, including a drive-through food distribution center and a home delivery program for homebound individuals. Through testing the new delivery program, the Food Finders team realized there was a need for this service beyond the pandemic and have plans to expand it into a senior delivery program. However, Crites said the drive-through set-up was not ideal because it could only operate during limited hours and eliminated client choice in their meal selection.

In a space many on the Food Finders team regularly drove by, approximately a mile north of the main office, sat an empty grocery store that used to be occupied by Save A Lot, which closed in February 2020. Crites made a call to see whether or not they could make the building work. With funding from a Feeding America grant to cover the costs, the pantry was able to welcome clients back in the fall in a space equipped with plenty of freezers and shelves as well as space for social distancing.

Fresh Market sign installation
A sign is hung on the outside of the new Food Finders Food Bank Fresh Market, which opened to the public in the fall. Photo provided.

“It worked out beautifully,” Crites said.

Opening up this space has been important to Food Finders in not only allowing clients to come in and select their food but also allowing the food bank’s resource coordinators to meet with individuals again. The resource coordinators can find out what else may be going on in those individuals’ lives and help connect them to other community resources.

“We know that food insecurity is just one piece of the puzzle that they’re probably struggling with,” Crites said.

Crites didn’t always imagine herself where she is today. While she knew she wanted a job that would give her purpose and allow her to make a difference, she didn’t imagine during her time at Purdue that she would end up working at a nonprofit.

“For some reason, knowing that I always wanted to have a job that had purpose, I had never thought about nonprofits,” Crites said. “In my young mind, I thought nonprofits were all just volunteer-run, and I didn’t realize that they actually needed people to work at them and manage them — especially they needed people with soft skills like relationship building.”

Having a background in hospitality and tourism management is valuable in her line of work, Crites said, because it equipped her with the skills to multitask while maintaining a positive demeanor. She said she’s also found that her education has influenced her career in ways she never expected.

Senior shopping
Patrons shop around in the Food Finders Food Bank Fresh Market. Opening up this space has been important to Food Finders in allowing clients to come in and select their food. Photo provided.

Crites recalled taking a food safety and sanitation class taught by HTM Professor Barbara Almanza as a freshman. At the time, she thought she was never going to use the information she was learning because she didn’t have plans to work at a restaurant. However, in her career at Food Finders, she finds that information to be extremely useful as she develops food safety protocols and procedures for the food bank.

“You just never know where you’re going to end up,” Crites said.

The type of problem-solving and team efforts that have been achieved throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are exactly what Crites said she enjoys about her job.

“I think being able to see the problem and being creative and finding a way — even though it seems impossible sometimes — to find a solution, and bringing the community together, the volunteers together and the funders together to be able make that solution happen is really satisfying,” Crites said.

Crites noted that while the pandemic has certainly been a difficult time for everyone, there have been a lot of silver linings because the Food Finders Food Bank Fresh Market and senior delivery program would not exist without these challenges. 

Food Finders is always looking for support from the community to continue to meet needs and create new programs, Crites said. Individuals can get involved by making donations, volunteering and advocating for the food bank by sharing information. Crites said hosting food or funds drives also helps because they are always in need of food items like canned goods, 100% fruit juice, canned meats, boxed meals, cereal and more.

“Really, anyone could find themselves in the position where they need to ask for food someday,” Crites said. “We’re here for anyone in that position. We’re always advocating to help them and support them.”