“We do education,” explains Erik Talkin about the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, which he’s led as CEO for the past decade. “We need to keep reminding people that it’s year-round.” He’s referring to the fact that most people think of the Foodbank only during the holidays, yet their work never stops.
Thanks to these outreach efforts, the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County has, for two years running, been honored with Feeding America’s Hunger Hope Award, which recognizes the most innovative programming in child nutrition. This past year, Erik published a book entitled Hunger Into Health, in which he chronicles his journey to leadership in food literacy and his team’s influential role in changing lives.
“We are working with poor people,” he explains. “They’re food insecure.”
Last year, the Foodbank distributed 10 million pounds of food, nearly half of which was fresh produce. More importantly, the nonprofit educates people on how to cook, how to shop, how to plan, and how to store food so that it spreads out over many days.
“People need to learn how to make a healthy meal,” Erik explains. “You’re at the mercy of someone else if you’re eating processed foods.”
Many think the Foodbank only feeds the homeless, but they make up just seven percent of the 150,000 people served, 38 percent of which are children. “We provide food to one in four people in the county,” explains Erik. “What we do has a long-term effect.”
Erik means serious business, but when you sit down to have a conversation with him, he exudes a disarming charm. He has an enviable wit, a British accent, and a large collection (over 20!) of dapper hats. When I ask him about the latter, he remarks, “Classic immigrant story: I came to the U.S. and I had to protect myself.” In person, the one-liner lands beautifully, but the back story is that he started wearing hats in 1998 when he came to this country to cover up from the sun and to hide his impending baldness.
Erik was actually born in Connecticut, but his dad was in the Navy, so Erik was raised in Wembley, England. He graduated in 1984 from the University College London in Bloomsbury with a degree in English literature. “It qualifies for everything, and nothing,” he quips. When I comment on his nonstop wisecracks, he says, “It’s just an inflection — to hide the depth within.”
Everything was happening in the 1980s in London. Influenced by the art scene, Erik began writing plays and movies, started a production company, and made a short film that was selected for the London Film Festival. About a rich pickpocket, it was called The Gallery and starred Helena Bonham Carter. His company then shot and edited a film called Hoop Machine with Parker Posey, but they ran out of money and the futuristic Romeo and Juliet film was never released.
Needing to make a living, Erik and his then-wife moved to California where he planned to be a “millionaire screenwriter.” They eventually chose Santa Barbara because they wanted their young daughter to attend a Waldorf School.
In 1998, he got a job as the director of corporate development for the Civic Light Opera of Santa Barbara. “It was the last days of Rome,” he says of the company, which shut down three years later. He then ran the community kitchen at Casa Esperanza, working with the homeless for about seven years.
“I wanted to focus on how to stop people from becoming homeless,” says Erik, a quest that led him to the Foodbank in 2008. He spent his first year getting the lay of the land, and then started making changes to the organization. “We stopped accepting candy and soda as donations,” he says of one such obvious move.
Erik also writes children’s books in his free time. “I’m writing a kid’s book about hunger called The Hunger Monster,” he says. The book encourages the reader to be empathetic, to understand that hunger is something that can happen to anyone. Set in a school, readers watch the monster follow the young protagonist. “The monster is all about shame,” explains Erik. “A lot of people who are hungry don’t seek help because of shame.”
Erik Talkin answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Intelligence, sense of humor, creativity, empathy, iconoclasm, and serenity. (It’s a tall order, I know.)
What is your motto?
“Before Enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Being content with a narrow worldview or choosing to remain oblivious to the short and long term consequences to humanity of how you acquire resources in the world.
Who do you most admire?
It may be corny, but the person I most admire is Mari Talkin, my wife. In terms of being a force for good and a positive influence in the lives of those she connects with, I have never met anyone like her. She’s a scarily wonderful mixture of the practical and the creative that I’m still working diligently to emulate. They say never meet your heroes, but maybe it’s okay to marry them.
What do you like most about your job?
Working with my colleagues and the community to help families be healthy, food literate, and empowered.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting by a lake with loved ones, writing, reading, listening to music, and laughing. (Not all at once.)
What is your greatest fear?
Obviously, being predeceased by any of our six kids. Or failing that, being fought over by two mature crocodiles.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Being 57 with a seven year old. Hold off on the grandkids please.
What is your current state of mind?
Highly focused on what needs to be done, in the way that recent family illness and death forces.
What do you most value in friends?
Low-maintenance loyalty and understanding. Yes, I never call, I never write, but I know you’d do anything for me.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Creativity, humor, and hats. It’s not liberté, égalité, and fraternité, but it’s got me through.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Actually,” “right,” and “Can I have cream on that?”
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would like to be better at drawing and be a musical creator as opposed to appreciator. I have plans to release an obscure electronic album on my 60th birthday and draw the cover.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Be able to better express and demonstrate the empathy I feel for every other human rather than having it masked by my British-raised, “knock everyone down a peg” humor. Years of therapy shrunk down to a single sentence: a miracle of miniaturization.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Helping raise young people I would want to hang out with even if I wasn’t related to them.
Where would you most like to live?
In the moment. (We Buddhists are so smug.)
What is your most treasured possession?
My Mac laptop. It allows me to express many sides of myself. From a young age my kids knew that they would be first to be dragged out of the burning building, but then I would go back for the laptop. Though Macs are losing their charm and these days all my data’s in the cloud. So, maybe I’m a pagan now, because I treasure a cloud.
What makes you laugh the most?
My family, Flight of the Conchords, Catastrophe, Fleabag, Fawlty Towers, Arrested Development (S1-3), The Producers (original), Anchorman, Zoolander, Dr. Strangelove, Duck Soup, early Hal Hartley.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Thich Nhat Hanh, Johnny Rotten, Berthold Brecht, Nina Simone, Powell & Pressburger, Joey Ramone, Bette Davis, and Stanley Kubrick. It would be an interesting lunch, though the tab could be considerable.
On what occasion do you lie?
When filling in questionnaires (except from the IRS).