‘Never About Yourself’

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Olivia Lemus Lucio first got involved with the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley as a member of their Empty Bowls fundraising committee. Four years and two titles later, she now serves as director of Development & Donor Services — the economic engine of the food bank that raises over $3.6 million each year to continue its operations.

As a Valley native and graduate of the then-University of Texas-Pan American, Lemus Lucio said she finds her work especially gratifying.

“It’s so rewarding to hear testimonies from the clients that have been positively impacted by our emergency food distributions, pantries, nutrition classes, and many life-sustaining programs from the Food Bank RGV,” she said. “It makes me so proud and honored to know that our team of food bankers helps impact thousands of people across our region. Our mission simply makes sense.”

With more than 76,000 people fed weekly and just under 50 million meals distributed annually, Food Bank RGV — which serves Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy counties — is the seventh-largest food bank in Texas. Food Banks RGV has an efficiency rate of 97% as designated by Charity Navigator, meaning 97 cents out of every $1 donated is used for food acquisition, distribution, and program support, and the remaining for overhead expenses.

Beyond simply combating hunger in individuals day to day through the distribution of meals and groceries, the vision of Food Bank RGV is to put an end to hunger entirely and support a healthy quality of life in the RGV.

Spreading awareness for food insecurity and the work Food Bank RGV puts into addressing the issue is the first step in achieving this vision, according to Lemus Lucio.

“We ensure that when somebody is eager to learn more about us, they not only understand our mission, but how they can become advocates of our cause,” she said. “We’re not just saying, ‘Well, let’s just feed our community facing food insecurity temporarily.’

“Really, it’s about focusing on what are we doing to transform their lives and take them out of poverty — not just placing a band-aid to this prevalent issue and saying, ‘OK, we’re just feeding you today.’ They’re going to be hungry again tomorrow. So, we — alongside other fervent and avid community partners — have to work together to help take food insecure families from hunger to health and economic stability. And that’s where our nutrition programs, classes, and services come into play, where we’re really educating our community on how to consume healthier foods while providing greater access to fresh produce and nutritious commodities.”

One program she’s particularly proud of is the Kids Produce Market program, where the food bank visits underserved schools throughout the RGV and establishes farmers markets where children can “shop” for produce.

“On a personal level, a highlight for me is seeing everything we’re doing for our most vulnerable populations — kids and seniors,” Lemus Lucio said. “Through programs like these, kids get the chance to see, ‘Hey, this is what shopping feels like,’ and they are encouraged to pick vegetables rather than other less healthy snacks.”

Though it’s not without its challenges — one of the largest being when the food bank’s clients more than tripled during the height of the pandemic — she says it’s an honor to serve in her role.

“I keep the mindset that I get to go to work, not have to go to work,” she said. “I have an opportunity every day to make an impact.”

When a circumstance feels overwhelming, she turns to wellness practices to gain perspective and find the energy to tackle the situation. A few practices that Lemus Lucio enjoys include meditating, staying active, and listening to positive affirmations.

“Taking the time to prioritize your mental health makes you realize there’s a bigger purpose for you, for your role, and for who you are as a human being,” she said. “My husband and I love to go out for walks every Friday. That’s like our little detox.

“We leave our phones at home and really enjoy ourselves. You have to remember that in order to give, you also have to take care of yourself just to be the best version you can be.”

In addition to her full-time role, she’s active in other community organizations, including Junior League of McAllen and Leadership McAllen — which both connect back to the RGV Food Bank through the underlying mission of being of service.

Looking ahead, Lemus Lucio looks forward to advancing within Food Bank RGV and continuing to expand its presence throughout the Valley. Over the next couple of years, she said they plan to establish a physical presence in Cameron County to further increase their services and programs to the food-insecure families residing in the Lower Valley.

For anyone searching for the right career fit, Lemus Lucio advises first finding something you’re skilled at and opening yourself up to feedback from people you admire and respect.

“You have to remember that not everyone knows what career path to pursue right away,” she said. “It may take some time exploring different areas to get experience in different fields. And when you finally jump into that career or field that makes you forget that it’s 5 o’clock, that’s how you know you’re in the right path.

“Because it’s no longer a job. It’s your passion.”

Rocio Villalobos