Rachel Bailey brought expertise home in effort to help solve hunger in Wyoming

Rachel Bailey is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

This story has been updated to reflect that Bailey is the Executive Director of the Food Bank of Wyoming.

Rachel Bailey, the Executive Director of the Food Bank of Wyoming, had seen the world working in marketing but her values brought her home to Wyoming to help the people of her home state.

"I just wanted to kind of shift my focus and kind of be able to contribute to a community based on my values and the values of that community," Bailey said. "It came from a desire of wanting to give back to a place that I grew up and really loved, but also to help people that were here, around me."

After working at the American Cancer Society on a community health initiative and the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra for ten years, Bailey took on the role of Executive Director for the food bank in 2022.

The rural nature of Wyoming complicates efforts for the food bank as it lacks resource avenues available to organizations in agricultural hotspots.

"Our drivers last year traveled about 100 or 250,000 miles around the state. We also have weather conditions, you know, that shuts roads down and makes it very challenging for people to access food," Bailey said. "Wyoming is also a state where we do not grow a lot of food for humans outside of the cattle industry. We also do not have food manufacturers or large-scale food manufacturers in our state, so we do not benefit from food donations from those like large manufacturers or large producers."

Another challenge the food bank faces is the self-reliant image some of Wyoming's residents have of themselves.

"A barrier to food access is our rugged independence in Wyoming but the other wonderful thing about Wyoming is that people here are very generous, and they do like to look after and help their neighbors," Bailey said. "There's people that aren't asking for help but I do think that we do a good job of looking after each other."

The best way to support the food bank, according to Bailey, is through donations. The Wyoming food bank is a part of Feeding America which allows the food bank to turn $1 into three meals.

"We're able to do that through our scale donations, as well as being able to cooperatively purchase food in bulk that and then we that those costs are then passed on so we're able to purchase food at a lower price than that you could get from a wholesaler or from a grocery store," Bailey said.

Do you have a guiding principle for your work?

From a nonprofit perspective you have to think about being an organization that is relevant to your community, or your state, and really trying to get in and dig in and understand, like, how you fit into the bigger picture. What are the needs of the community and how can you satisfy those needs without duplicating them?

The way that I have always thought about it is: if a nonprofit is successful, or if the work that we are doing is successful, then you will see the community is responding to it, participating in it and want to be a part of it. You can actually see the positive effects that it was having.

Do you have something that you consider a win from the past year?

Yes, several, but, you know, two weeks ago, I went to a mobile pantry, on the Wind River Reservation. I was able to, instead of you know, coming in, and organizing and doing, I was able to just kind of be there and help and talk with the neighbors and enjoy a beautiful January day. It was an event handing out food for food assistance, but it's very celebratory. It was just joyful.

I think that it really puts in perspective, why we're doing this. Watching people being able to come and get a 25-pound bag of produce and some of the other staples and needs that can help them throughout the month and turn that into like a very joyful and kind of community centric experience. It was it was just really wonderful.

Who paved the way for you?

I have a pretty significant mentor, Ann Ruble. Think I'm really the thing that she did was she was a great soundboard. She's very encouraging. If there were things that I knew that kind of used to happen, but I wasn't quite sure how to do it. She was she was a wonderful soundboard and like kind of creative lead. She also, you know, kind of taught you taught me things about, you know, nonprofits and nonprofit leadership.

She also had a very different outlook on how communities and government entities and individuals should like kind of support nonprofits so that, you know, that was also very helpful and informative. But I think like, honestly, it's like, she always believed in me, maybe sometimes more than I believed in myself, and really pushed me to spread my wings and try and do the hard things and encouraged me to do the hard things that I didn't always know that maybe I could do.

Do you have a definition for courage?

I think that courage is taking on the hard things in stride and meeting them head with curiosity and creativity and in some instances compassion.

Lightning Round

What's the best advice a parent gave you? 

The best advice really this comes from my dad, my mother has given me lots of good advice, but this has been key in my work: If you don't ask the question the answer is always no.

What advice would you give yourself at 18?

Don't take yourself too seriously.

What's your best meeting strategy or tip?

Always include laughter.

What's a book that you've read in the past year for work?

I read a book called "Neither Wolf nor Dog" by Kent Norburn and it has really informed the way that I think about and have shown up to work alongside our tribal communities here in Wyoming.

What's a book that you’ve read in the past year for fun?

I'm currently reading David Brook's new book, "How to Know a Person."

What's your best stress reliever or thing you do to relax? 

A good yoga class.

What's your best organization or planning hack? 

Always take it in stride and remain calm or at least have the appearance of calm. Don't worry about the details that don't get done because no one will ever know that you were planning them.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Helping at home: One woman's journey to solve hunger in Wyoming