After 36 years working in the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Gary Gay is retiring at the end of this week. He’s been the director of the Food Distribution Division since 1994.
When he started with the department in 1985, he didn’t imagine he’d stay for more than three decades, and he certainly didn’t have an idea of where his career would take him. He began in the Marketing Division, traveling all over the state to provide grading and inspection service for eggs and poultry. In 1990, he moved to the Food Distribution Division and covered a regional territory as a field representative for two years before becoming the administrator of the Food Distribution warehouses in Granville and Rowan Counties.
“Once I got into Food Distribution and got to know all the agencies and the people I was working with, I just fell in love with it and knew it’s what I wanted to do,” Gay said.
After two years as the warehouse administrator, the previous division director retired, and then Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham chose Gay to be the next division director. He quickly got to work on opportunities for improvement and a vision he had for the future.
“It just felt really easy to do,” Gay said. “There’s that old saying that if you find something you love then you’ll never work another day in your life. It’s been that way for me. I’ve especially loved the people I’ve worked with.”
That’s not to say his job has been easy. There have been challenges all along the way, whether it was natural disasters, logistics of programs like Farm to School or weather such as frost or excessive rain. Lots of factors can affect food distribution in the movement from the farm to the customer. Every year is different, Gay said. So every year can create a different challenge. One crop may have a problem because of weather this year, and next year it’ll be a different crop that’s affected and straining the supply chain.
In just the past few years, trade disputes have affected food supplies and prices, meaning food distribution has been affected. Even federal stimulus bills because of the coronavirus pandemic have brought challenges in figuring out and implementing new programs. The pandemic also brought staffing challenges at times and a myriad of adjustments that brought daily obstacles for most of 2020.
All along the way, Gay has always communicated those challenges with customers so they can prepare, adjust and work together to overcome any issues. For Gay and the Food Distribution Division, customers include food banks, soup kitchens, schools and other organizations that have feeding programs.
“From day one I’ve preached to my staff customer service,” Gay said. “You have to provide customer service because if they don’t get food from us they’ll look somewhere else.”
Gay’s commitment to customers can’t be overstated. The standard signature area of his emails includes the phrase “What have you done for your Customers today?” in bold font. He’s serious about it.
He’s also been serious about making improvements during his many years of service. That’s included improvement from the USDA level down to the Food Distribution warehouses. He’s served on the board for the American Commodities Distribution Association, representing seven states in the southeast, and he served two terms as president of the association. Through his involvement he’s been able to travel to Washington, D.C. and other parts of the country to meet people, discuss issues and work to solve problems. That work has been really rewarding.
“You actually get to sit down and meet the people who could make changes to make programs better,” Gay explained.
For example, when Gay first started working in the division, the USDA food program had a reputation for unreliable receiving dates, meaning food shipments wouldn’t arrive to customers when expected. It was a complaint he heard especially when working with schools. So he helped draw attention to that.
“There were some serious talks to consider schools as a customer, and USDA had to change the way they bought the food so they could be a reliable supplier,” Gay said.
He was happy to help USDA make the changes necessary. Again, it’s just an example of some of the changes Gay has been at the table for, shaping policy and procedure along the way.
The rewarding feeling his job has brought has made the decision to retire a hard one. He also knows he’ll miss all the people he’s enjoyed working with.
“You always hear people say you’ll know when it’s time, and that came around last fall with COVID. Every day it was a different challenge or fire to put out,” Gay said. “It’s been bittersweet and a struggle to make that decision, but you just know when it’s time to move on.”
Gay doesn’t have any particular plans for his retirement, but he’s not likely to enjoy a complete break from activity.
“I’m not a porch-sitting kind of guy,” Gay joked when asked if that was an option.
He hopes to stay physically and mentally active, and there are some things he’d like to do back on the family farm in Spring Hope. He looks forward to tackling some of the projects there with his brother. He may also see more of his mother who still lives on the land where his family has grown tobacco, soybeans, corn, hay and Angus beef cattle. He and his wife may also have more time to visit their daughter in Charlotte, or they may get away to the mountains more often. He also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to the department to continue helping in some way – something he says he’d love if the right opportunity came along.
The reality of retirement is still new for Gay, so it may take a while for it to take shape after 36 years with the department. There may be some unknowns looking forward, but looking back Gay knows he’s done good work, and he knows saying goodbye to people is one of the hardest parts of leaving.
“I definitely will miss the people, especially the people here at Food Distribution,” Gay said. “And this job gave me the opportunity to travel to all 100 counties and across the country. I’ve developed a lot of friends all across the state and the country, and I’ll miss them as well.”