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Karen Vauk: This alum and nonprofit leader spent decades feeding Idaho

Karen Vauk isn’t your typical CEO. Her path to the top job at the Idaho Foodbank and her 14-year stay at the agency wasn’t run-of-the-mill either.

Vauk, a “double Bronco” (BA, education; 1980, MA, education, curriculum and instruction, 1985), knew early on that she wanted to be the first in her family to attend college. Growing up in Boise, she started her college savings fund when she was 12.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she taught at Amity Elementary School in the Boise School District for what she calls “eight very rewarding years.” She was introduced to corporate training and education in her master’s program – coursework that broadened her perspective on how to use her skills beyond the classroom.

“Dr. Phyllis Edmundson was the advisor for my master’s program, and I can never thank her enough for the support and guidance she provided,” Vauk said. “She was, and still is, the model of what I aspire to be as a leader, mentor and coach.”

Video: Feeding Idaho

Closed captions provided and a text transcript is provided at the end of this page.

Micron Technology hired Vauk to expand its training programs because of her expertise in curriculum design. She spent close to two decades with the company, creating worldwide leadership development programs and launching the Micron Technology Foundation. That experience set her up to lead the Idaho Foodbank, and, ultimately, to become an influential nonprofit leader across the region.

“The beauty of a Boise State education is that our alums are versatile, adaptable and impactful in a variety of settings, no matter their major,” said Ally Daniels, the director of the online and professional MBA programs at Boise State and an Idaho Foodbank board member. “Karen is a prime example of this. She’s a jack-of-all-trades, a well-rounded leader.”

Vauk’s passion for fighting food insecurity inspired a mobile pantry program that serves 68 communities, many of them rural and without other food services, in Idaho’s 44 counties.

Vauk is also aware of the many hurdles that students face during college. The Idaho Foodbank supports university-led food pantries at Boise State and on the campuses of three other Idaho universities.

During the past fiscal year, the Idaho Foodbank distributed enough food for 22.7 million meals with over 184,000 Idaho residents served monthly. Karen Vauk and her staff partnered with a network of more than 480 community distributors to reach remote areas across the state.Karen Vauk

“We sometimes hear that it’s viewed as a rite of passage for college students to struggle financially, which can mean being hungry while trying to learn. When I was a student, I remember going to the grocery stores on the weekends for free samples as my only source of food. While I managed through that time, I firmly believe no student should face challenges like that,” she said.

Daniels said she saw Vauk approach challenges, including looking for bipartisan solutions and policies to address the root causes of hunger in Idaho, with “empathy, curiosity and tenacity.” Vauk said that she found motivation in these challenges, “especially when others want to join in the effort to tackle them.”

Vauk retired from the Idaho Foodbank in October 2023. She left a lasting imprint on the organization and the communities it served.

By Matt Jones

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Video Transcript

(light acoustic music)

– [Karen Vaulk, Retired President and CEO of the Idaho Foodbank]: People shouldn’t be hungry in our country. They shouldn’t be hungry in Idaho. It’s not about a lack of food. We have enough food. It’s a matter of getting that food to the people who are in need.

(forklift driving)

The rural communities in Idaho are a specific challenge for us. We find that the rural areas often have a disproportionately higher level of food insecurity. They just don’t have access to grocery stores or other sources of food. So we work closely with different community leaders or county commissioners in the rural areas to implement what we call a mobile pantry program, where they may not have a brick and mortar location where they can set up a food pantry. But we define a time when we’ll come in with our truck full of nutritious food, they’ll get the word out to the neighbors in the area of what time we’re going to be in a specific location, and then they come to that location to get the food that we make available to them. And then they know we’re going to be back in the same place in the next month. So it becomes a source of nourishing food that they can count on. Working with Boise State University on the opening of their food pantry was really an exciting adventure for us. There’s been such a commitment on campus to provide food access to students, and so finding them that administrative support and the faculty support and the student support to open up that pantry, it was the right time, and we had the right people who were involved in that. And to see how that’s evolved and what they’re doing today is really gratifying. You know, there are so many rewarding experiences that I’ve had at the Idaho Food Bank over the years that I really could not have anticipated and I’m very grateful. But I would say what I’ve enjoyed the most and I’m most proud of is what we’ve done through collaboration. And I’ve always said we’re not going to end hunger alone. Nobody is. What I found in Idaho is that there are so many community leaders, businesses, individuals, volunteers who want to be a part of that solution that I’ve I’ve felt we’ve had that opportunity to bring that energy together and then see the difference that it’s making for Idahoans who have needed our services. That’s incredibly rewarding.

(light acoustic music)