The Road Less Traveled: Lisa Ousley’s Inspiring Odyssey with ATH’s Food Rescue Mission

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The Road Less Traveled: Lisa Ousley's Inspiring Odyssey with ATH's Food Rescue Mission

Chronicling the Path of ATH’s Founding Executive Director Lisa Ousley as She Prepares to Pass the Baton

ATH Past Executive Director-Advisor Lisa Ousley (right) with Christina Martin, founding member of ATH’s Board of Directors.

As the sun sets on another day at After the Harvest, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on a remarkable journey, a decade of unwavering dedication, and the inspiring leadership of our founding Executive Director, Lisa Ousley. With her retirement at the end of December 2023, Lisa is set to embark on a new chapter, but her commitment to ATH will endure. 

This article marks the first part of a two-part series that delves into Lisa’s legacy and her tireless work as ATH’s visionary leader. In the upcoming second part, we’ll shine a spotlight on ATH’s newest Executive Director, Michael Watson, who has been integrating himself into the organization since January of 2023. Today, join us as we explore the incredible impact of Lisa Ousley’s leadership and her enduring influence on the fight against food insecurity in Kansas City. 

Lisa’s connection to the mission of ATH runs deep. She grew up with a family that understood the value of gardening and farming, and her love for cultivating the earth and eating what she grew stayed with her throughout her life. When she discovered the concept of gleaning in 2008, she was struck by the immense potential to rescue fresh produce from going to waste and help those facing food insecurity. It became a calling she couldn’t ignore, and she set out to make a change.

Gleaning  a simple but effective solution  was not a new concept, but it was an idea that hadn’t been fully explored in her community. For Lisa, it was a revelation, and she was driven by a question: “You mean that’s not already being done?” This revelation was the spark that ignited her journey.

“Gleaning, rescuing fresh produce from being wasted, providing it to hungry people. It’s simple and it makes so much sense! I would call it part of being a responsible steward of our resources on this beautiful planet.” – Lisa Ousley

One of Lisa’s most significant accomplishments was gaining the trust of local and regional farmers, including the Mennonite and Amish farmers in Rich Hill, Missouri. These hardworking, compassionate farmers initially had reservations about allowing volunteers to glean in their fields. Lisa had to assure them that this collaboration would benefit everyone. She had to build relationships, show the value of gleaning, and, over time, she succeeded in forging a bond that has been nothing short of magical.

Regarding the Mennonite farmers, Lisa recalled, “I had no way to call them. I had no way to reach them. They’re 75 miles away, and I had no way to connect with them, until I met Diana Endicott of Good Natured Family Farms.” The story of that first meeting, in a wood stove-heated schoolhouse on a freezing January day, is emblematic of Lisa’s determination and her ability to connect with even the most unlikely of partners. These farmers were logical business men with a deep-rooted compassion for people without enough to eat. Their alliance with Lisa and ATH would become one of the defining partnerships in the organization’s history.

“Our farmers had to wrap their heads around the idea of bringing a group of people, including children, into their fields, where they could possibly tromp on crops, or pick the wrong way and ruin their peach trees, or risk the liability of a twisted ankle or worse. It took some time to convince them to try, and a lot of persistence on our part. We worked with our farmers to enforce their rules and guidelines at each gleaning, and to maintain our relationships and build their trust.” – Lisa Ousley

ATH’s story was the prologue to work begun by the Society of St. Andrew (SoSA) in 2008, under Lisa’s leadership as the director of SoSA West. Through the six years SoSA West was in Kansas City, a clear need for a gleaning organization was established. However, as the years passed, Lisa and a subset of the SoSA West Advisory board recognized the need to establish an independent organization that could operate more effectively within Kansas City. In 2014, under the leadership and guidance of our first board of directors – Sally Luck, Christina Martin, Jim Merrill and Mark Smith – ATH was born. The decision to part ways with SoSA was courageous and, at times, intimidating, but it was a step towards a brighter future and a deeper commitment to their mission.

Lisa’s passion and dedication were evident as she met with various faith congregations and community members, reaching out to everyone in her quest to create an organization that transcended faith boundaries. This inclusive approach was a hallmark of her leadership and a testament to her vision of uniting people of all backgrounds to combat food insecurity.

Play Video

In this video, Founding Executive Director Lisa Ousley sheds light on After the Harvest’s mission, dedicated to combating food insecurity, minimizing food waste, and improving nutrition.

The ATH journey was not without its challenges. One of the biggest hurdles this budding nonprofit encountered was funding the dream of eradicating hunger in our community. Founding board member Christina Martin proved pivotal in the success of first SoSA West and then ATH, working tirelessly to craft grants and connect with funders to support this mission. Her persistence paid off as ATH met its annual goals, still aiming to provide even more fresh produce for those in need has been a constant struggle.

Lisa’s frustration at the disconnect between the abundance of resources and the persistence of hunger was palpable. Her commitment to the cause was unwavering, and she consistently pushed to make the dream a reality.

“Our biggest challenge has been funding the dream. No one should be hungry in this town when there is so much wealth and philanthropy here! So much food is wasted! Food insecurity is an abomination, as far as I can see.” – Lisa Ousley

For Lisa, one of the greatest joys was witnessing the commitment and dedication of ATH’s volunteers. She recalled stories of individuals like Randy Burdge and Tom Decker, who continually go above and beyond. Randy and Tom have been driving the organization’s truck on a nearly daily basis for several years. The volunteers at ATH come from all walks of life, but they share one thing: an unwavering passion for the mission. Their commitment is humbling, and it’s this kind of support that has allowed ATH to thrive. 

The diversity of ATH’s volunteers, each with their unique motivations and backgrounds, add depth and richness to the organization’s work. It’s a testament to the inclusive and welcoming environment Lisa fostered.

“That’s the beauty of After the Harvest: we all own it, and we all have different perspectives and different reasons for our passion for it.” – Lisa Ousley

Over the years, Lisa and ATH achieved some remarkable milestones. The partnership with Farmers Choice revolutionized ATH’s ability to provide fresh produce for the community, expanding their offerings from a limited selection to a wide array of fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, Lisa’s efforts in establishing gleaning as a part of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in the region set an industry standard for responsible food sourcing.

In the span of Lisa’s leadership, ATH provided an astonishing 32 million pounds of produce for hungry people in Kansas City. These numbers reflect not only the growth of the organization but also the impact it has had on reducing food insecurity in the region.

Lisa’s legacy goes beyond numbers and figures; it’s about the relationships she built, the partnerships she created, and the profound impact she had on her community. Her passion and dedication will forever be remembered as a driving force behind ATH’s mission.

Lisa Ousley’s journey is a testament to the incredible impact we can have when we work together to fight food insecurity and food waste. It takes a community. One person cannot do it alone, but when we join together and weave a fabric of strong partnerships, we can change reality for everyone living in our community. Her legacy at After the Harvest will continue to inspire us, reminding us that even the simplest solutions can make a profound difference when driven by passion and commitment.

As we look forward to the future under the leadership of ATH’s new Executive Director, Michael Watson, we carry Lisa’s vision and spirit with us, knowing that her work will continue to fuel our mission for years to come. Lisa Ousley’s legacy will serve as a guiding light, reminding us that, in the face of hunger, we can make a difference, one gleaned fruit at a time.

This article is part one of a series. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will focus on ATH’s newest executive director, Michael Watson, who has been integrating himself into the organization since January of 2023.