JIM FLOROS HAS FOUND THAT THE HARDER YOU WORK, THE LUCKIER YOU GET
There’s no denying the magnificence of Jim Floros’ mustache, but for him, the thick, full ’stache is no fashion statement or passing fad.
“I’ve had it since I was 18,” he says with a laugh during a conversation via Zoom. “Before I turned gray, I looked a little bit like Borat. I used to trim it up more, but my wife said it poked her when I kissed her, so I grew it out. I had a mustache before it was cool, I have a mustache now that it’s cool, and when it’s not cool, I’m still going to have a mustache.”
It’s late in the day on the Friday of a long week, but clearly the president and CEO of the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank still has a lot of energy. That’s a good thing because in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ripple effect it’s had on people’s lives, Floros ’84 (BA) needs to hit the ground running, all day, every day.
“It’s in our DNA to adapt, to overcome, to pivot and create strategies. We hit this thing hard in mid-March, and within 72 hours, we had already created phase one of our response,” he explains. “We had to: Our nonprofit partners were saying that the needs of our distribution sites were doubling and tripling.”
Floros takes pride in his “remarkable staff” and lack of bureaucracy, which allows the food bank to move swiftly to react to need. “Our first phase was to just push out as much food as we could to our nonprofit partners, so we removed all obstacles from that.”
By mid-April, he says that 700,000 pounds of food had been distributed to nonprofit partners. “I was marveling about how well we were doing, just ‘Wow, we are really killing it.’ There was never a flinch or a moment of panic. Long hours, 16-hour days. I had three days off in the first 10 weeks; an easy day was 12 hours at home on a weekend.”
As the organization moved into stage two — mass distributions, such as those held in the parking lots of places like SDCCU Stadium and the Del Mar Fairgrounds — Floros decided the food bank needed to change strategy. “We really didn’t like those because they lack client dignity. You can only handle 1,000 cars, but the problem is, 4,000 cars show up. People wait in line and they go home without food. That is just heartbreaking.”
He says another problem is that those sorts of large sites don’t allow for walk-ups. “A lot of low-income people don’t have cars. How do they get food? So we launched phase three on July 1 and went back to our roots, which is our neighborhood distribution model. We call it the Super Pantry Program. We turned 35 of our 500 nonprofit partners into super pantries, which are high-frequency, high-quantity distribution sites strategically located throughout San Diego County.”
It’s an impressive outreach, one that Floros says has made the food bank a frontrunner among peers on a nationwide basis. “These superpantries commit to distributing food three days a week for at least three hours a day and to allow walk-ups and drive-ups until at least December 31. To support that, we send them food and gave each of them a $20,000 capacity grant that they can use for refrigeration units, trucks or whatever they need to help meet the community’s needs.”
Those needs are greater now than ever. The food bank went from feeding 350,000 people a month to 600,000 a month almost overnight. Between March and December 2020, Floros says they’ve distributed 47 million pounds of food.
“It’s hard to get your arms around what 47 million pounds of food looks like,” he says. “That’s 1,560 semi trucks loaded full of food. And the need isn’t going away. We expect this to be going on for a couple of years.”
How did a Wisconsin boy wind up in San Diego, 2,000 miles from his hometown? Like the anecdotal stories of many transplants, it started with a family vacation to America’s Finest City.
“I knew at a pretty young age that I was getting out of Wisconsin,” Floros says. “I was tired of the cold winters. I knew that when the time came, I would probably go to college in San Diego.”
His father passed away when Floros was 12, and had set up a trust fund for his three sons that was earmarked for education or college. When the time came, Floros applied to just two schools: The University of Wisconsin-Madison and USD. He was accepted to both.
“It didn’t take long for me to say, ‘I’m going to San Diego.’ It was such a different time; there were no cell phones. I didn’t know anybody in San Diego. I drove across country by myself. I’d stop and sleep in a Holiday Inn every night and call my mom, and she’d say, ‘Oh, great, you’re alive. Call me again tomorrow.’ Typical Midwesterner.”
Floros ultimately decided on majoring in international relations. “I like politics. I like history. I like writing. I landed on international relations because if you majored in political science, you had to take a statistics class,” he says with a chuckle. “It was the best major for me because you study every part of society: its politics, its history, its architecture, its literature. You get a really great global perspective. And I had to take nine units of religious studies, which was great. Those courses helped shape some of the opinions I still hold today.”
One professor that lingers in his memory decades later is Patrick Drinan, who was named as chair of the Department of Political Science in 1981 and subsequently served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences until 2006.
“We only had a few dozen students who majored in political science and international relations at first,” Drinan recalls. “I remember Jim as having analytical prowess. International relations was a challenging major, and in my opinion, they were some of the best students on campus. They tended to write well and be able to integrate knowledge from a variety of subjects.”
Floros was also impressed with his advisor, the late Carl Gilbert, who was a history professor at USD for 25 years. “He was the most amazingly intelligent man I’ve ever met in my life,” he says with deep sincerity.
“He was so tough. He basically said in his classes, ‘I don’t give A’s. Try your best, but if you get a B, you should pat yourself on the back.’ Being the person I am, I said, ‘To hell with that.’ So, I stubbornly just kept taking his classes until I started getting A’s. I’ve always been drawn to challenges.”
After graduation, Floros knew he wanted to stay in San Diego. “Back then, career paths were a little more open, so I decided to go into communications. I applied for jobs in public relations, but I wasn’t getting any interest.” He pauses, and laughs.
“Did I have a degree in communications? No. Did I have a portfolio? No. Had I ever written a press release? Also, no. Maybe that’s why no one wanted to hire me.”
So a friend suggested a way in: “He told me to go to a nonprofit and do an internship so I could get experience.” He wound out up at Project Concern International, and realized he’d accidentally found his niche. “I just fell in love with the nonprofit thing. They liked me enough to give me a stipend,” he recalls. He was ultimately hired as a coordinator in the development department.
“I just wanted to learn, so I asked to sit in on meetings and learned grant writing, interacted with program staff, learned to do budgets … I probably had five different titles in seven or eight years. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning so much that really served me well, especially in the next step in my career.”
That next chapter was a long one: two decades, in fact. About 18 months into a new job as director of development for the Burn Institute, Floros was installed as interim CEO on his 33rd birthday. “I was a deer in the headlights,” he recalls. “I always thought I would have this sage mentor that would teach me how to be a CEO, and suddenly, there I was. The fire service had a lot of influence, and they said, ‘Jim is our guy; we want him to be CEO.’
“Personally, I think it was the mustache.”
One of the main things he loved about the Burn Institute was the close relationship the organization had with the fire service. “I think that’s part of the reason why I stayed so long,” he muses. “I just had so much fun, and I love the firefighters and the fire chiefs. When you’re a part of the Burn Institute — for everybody who supports it — it’s going to be their cause for life.”
Floros is proud of the work he did there. “Over 20 years, we built the organization to become the top burn foundation in the nation. We went from a staff of four to 12, still pretty small for a nonprofit, but it was trial by fire,” he says. “I always tell people, ‘I may not be the smartest. I may not be the best, but no one’s going to outhustle me. I’m a Packers fan, and I love the saying, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’”
He came on board as president and CEO of the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank — the largest hunger-relief organization in San Diego County — in 2013. While he’s led a variety of initiatives during his time there, such as achieving LEED Gold status and expanding services to North County, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effect on the economy has been unprecedented. Hustle has become a job requirement in 2020.
Floros is poised to do what it takes to meet the need, however great. He’s proud that the food bank contributes 94 cents of each donated dollar to program services. “We’re raising a lot of money, and we’re spending a lot of money,” he says. “Prior to COVID, in a typical year, we’d spend about $1 million on food. This year, we’ve spent $10 million since mid-March. We’ve gotten 25,000 new donors since then; these are people who had never given to us and never thought about the food bank. But now, they’re heavily invested in what we do.”
Providing food is just part of the solution. “Even though we’re not an environmental organization — our mandate is to feed people — we realized if we’re more environmentally conscious, we could save a lot of money, which means you feed more people. We started by putting 1,400 solar panels on the roof, which saves us $120,000 a year, equal to about 600,000 meals.”
Other efforts have included investing in technology that keeps food product refuse out of the landfill by turning it into compost in just five days. “We are a zero-waste facility,” Floros says, with justifiable pride. “We’re the first food warehouse in the world to achieve a LEED Gold Version 4 Award. It’s pretty cool.”
Another innovative service the food bank offers is for parents of young children. “We had State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher come to us and asked us to consider being a regional diaper bank,” Floros says. “I had never even heard of that.”
She went on to give an example of why the expense of diapers can lead families down the road to poverty. “A single mom on food stamps gets a job. Great. She’s going to make more money, do better for her family and pull them out of poverty. Great. But now she has the obstacle of daycare. which is expensive. Thankfully, she gets subsidized daycare, so she clears another hurdle. But now she shows up at a daycare and they say, ‘You need to show up with eight to 10 diapers every day. So at the end of the month, she’s running out of money and has to choose between food and diapers. Of course, she’s going to pick food. So she runs out of diapers, can’t take her child to daycare and misses work. If she misses enough times, she loses her job. Something as simple as diapers could be that one piece of the puzzle that helps keep a family become self-sufficient.”
Floros pauses, then smiles. “The best part of my job, when she told me that story, I looked over at my vice president of programs and said, ‘What do you think?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, All right. We’ll do it.’ And the assembly member arranged for funding from the state to fund our diaper bank.”
The effort has been well worth it for San Diego families. “Even pre-COVID, we were distributing over half a million diapers a month. In May, our record-breaking month, we did 850,000 diapers. It’s a really big benefit for military families; we work with them a lot.”
In the end, it all comes back to helping people. “Most people think food banks just feed the homeless, but that’s less than 5% of our service population. Our goal is to break the cycle of poverty and help people become self-sufficient.”
As part of that effort, the work of Floros and his team isn’t food banking so much as it is nutrition banking. “We know that nutrition-related disease is linked to poverty,” he says. “When people have less resources, they have a hard time affording protein and fresh protein. What they can afford is high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt food. This leads to generations of unhealthy people, a condition that’s directly related to a poor diet.”
Other issues include the mental health issues that can stem from food insecurity for children, the stress that comes from worrying about how to put food on the table, and the way that factors like these can keep families locked into a generational cycle of poverty. Clearly, an integrated approach is needed.
“Childhood education starts with childhood nutrition,” Floros explains. “We have strict policies of not distributing soda, sheet cakes, energy drinks. Last year we gave out 14 million pounds of fresh produce. But it’s not enough to just give people healthy food, you have to educate them about healthy eating.”
The food bank does this by having a full-time nutritionist on staff, providing recipe cards, doing cooking demonstrations and even taking people to grocery stores to teach them how to shop for healthy food.
“It’s a holistic approach. Come join us. We’re looking for volunteers and financial contributions, sure, but if you need to know where to get food from a distribution site near you, it’s all on our website. Go to sandiegofoodbank.org. It will set you free.” — Julene Snyder
Note: This story will appear in the Spring 2021 issue of USD Magazine, which is scheduled for February 2021.