The Houston Food Bank and Houston produce community are well known for their close relationship, and that’s thanks in part to Warren Brice.
Brice, a 30-year veteran produce merchandiser for the Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. and former marketing director for the food bank, died April 30 at age 83.
“Hundreds of thousands of people ate, and ate healthier, because of Warren Brice,” said Brian Greene, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Food Bank. “His biggest initiative was turning the Houston Food Bank into a heavy produce food bank. We were years ahead of food banks around the country and have continued to serve as a role model due to Warren’s leadership.”
Originally from North Carolina, Brice moved to Houston in 1956 after service in the Korean War. He started working for Kroger that year and retired from the company in 1986, said his son Mark Brice.
During that time, he mentored a Kroger up-and-comer.
“He taught me how to sell produce and how to connect with customers,” said Reggie Griffin, vice president of produce procurement and merchandising for Kroger. “He was one of the most creative merchandising minds that I’ve ever been fortunate enough to spend time with and learn from.”
Brice continued to work in produce after retirement, joining the food bank as marketing director in 1988.
“He was excited at the possibility of really beginning to incorporate fresh produce into the food bank pantries and warehouses,” said Mark Brice. “He always told me that his inside knowledge of the produce industry and having worked with so many people in Houston over the years gave him particular insight to really what it would take to get produce moving.”
His influence wasn’t limited to the Houston community. Rick Bella, former produce coordinator for Feeding America and president and chief executive officer of Fresh Hope Produce, Valparaiso, Ind., said Brice was one of his first phone conversations after he started working at the Chicago-based national food bank network, then called America’s Second Harvest.
“Warren became a friend over the years and was always providing me with ideas to pursue from a national level,” Bella said. “He was the person who unselfishly shared his produce contacts with me, and introduced me to his contacts at Shoenmann Produce and Mountain King Potatoes in Houston. Over ten years later, Mountain King has provided literally millions of pounds of fresh potatoes to dozens of Feeding America food banks.”
Bella said through Brice’s efforts and influence, food banks made produce an everyday item.
“His knowledge of fresh produce handling brought the Houston Food Bank to a whole other level and made fresh produce an important program,” Bella said. “I recall the board of directors actually making a mandate that the food bank would always stock a handful of popular produce items for their agencies – items like potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, apples – to name a few. He was the force behind the paradigm shift in relief food distribution.”
Among Brice’s achievements was helping to start the Houston Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association’s annual Gift of Produce. Brice also worked to develop the Texas Fresh Approach, a partnership to grow vegetables for the food bank with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Houston Gleaning Initiative.
He received the National Hunger Hope Award in 2001 and the America’s Second Harvest National Mighty Apple award in 2003.
Brice officially retired from the food bank in 2005, but remained active in the Houston produce industry until shortly before his death.
“It was very important to him, and maybe he was a little ahead of his time with his emphasis on fresh produce in food banks,” Mark Brice said. “But I think he made a difference.”