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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Susan Sanford, who led Food Bank for two decades, dies at 77

Susan H. Sanford, whose passionate civic spirit, business savvy, and tireless advocacy benefited a wide range of nonprofit organizations, died Monday evening after a brief illness. She was 77.

In her most prominent public role, Sanford was president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank from 1991-2010. During her tenure, the food bank doubled its distribution and expanded to serve 31 counties in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Susan Sanford
Susan Sanford

“The food bank stands today as one of the most recognizable nonprofits in the Mid-South because of Susan’s vision, leadership, her compassion and commitment,” said Estella Mayhue-Greer, who followed Sanford as food bank president and CEO.

Before joining the food bank, Sanford was development director for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 1986-1991. She helped to secure funding for the museum’s $2.5 million expansion and renovation.

“I feel like I went from feeding the soul to feeding the body,” she told the Memphis Daily News in 2006.

Sanford and the food bank became founding members of the Safety Net Collaborative, which includes the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities Inc., Christ Community Health Services, Church Health Center, Memphis Union Mission, MIFA and The Salvation Army.

Over the years, Sanford also served as president of the Memphis Arts Council and the Memphis Rotary Club, and chair of United Way of the Mid-South. She helped to establish the YWCA’s Family Shelter for women and children. In 2008, she won a regional Emmy Award for community service along with producer John Koski and WHBQ-TV.

Susan Haspel Sanford was born Nov. 14, 1944, and was the eldest of two children of Sam and Geraldine Haspel. Her father was president of Temple Israel, and the person she said she most admired.

Sanford remembered him for “his intelligence, his business sense, his generosity, his humor, his abhorrence of intolerance, and teaching me that I could be anything I wanted to be,” she told The Commercial Appeal in 2006.

Sanford was a lifelong member of Temple Israel. In the late 1970s, she was president of the Memphis chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, and helped to establish the Volunteer Center of Memphis.

“When I was a little girl, I learned that Judaism is a way of life, and it’s always very important to me that I live an honest life of integrity and help as many people as I can,” she told the Daily News.

In 2009, Sanford was among the first six women to receive a Legends Award from the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. Others were Happy Jones, Minerva Johnican, Maxine Smith, Jeanne Varnell and Jane Walters.

Family and friends described Sanford as a kind, creative and tireless advocate for justice, equality, and community.

“As much as Susan did for our city and the organizations and boards she led, it’s who Susan was throughout her life — a caring friend and exemplar of the highest Jewish values,” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein. “After COVID hit, she sent checks to the receptionist at the hair salon she’d been going to for decades. Susan knew this woman wasn’t receiving income these past two years, so she continued supporting her. That was Susan.”

Sanford, a 1962 graduate of East High School, majored in history at the University of Wisconsin, and worked for Rand McNally and Illinois Bell before returning to Memphis.

In the late 1970s, Sanford and several other women secured grant funding for a series of public service announcements encouraging Memphis parents to support the city’s public schools.

“Susan was always concerned about the betterment of Memphis and cared deeply for the community. She was a tireless worker and advocate,” said Sherry Samuels, a longtime friend.

Sanford is survived by her husband of 15 years, Billy Reed; her daughters, Julie and Jill, and two granddaughters; two stepchildren, Virginia and Leighton, and two step-grandsons; her mother, Geraldine Haspel; her brother, Randy Haspel, and her former husband, Jeff Sanford.

Private services were held Thursday. A memorial service is planned. The family requests that donations be made to the Mid-South Food Bank.

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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