Posted inProfiles in Leadership

How do you get ready to run a food bank during COVID? Gulf War, 9/11 experience helps

Julie Butner is accustomed to working under pressure. So when COVID-19 hit and forced the world to shut down, her experience in the Army Reserves and airline industry kicked into gear. 

Just three months before the pandemic, Butner had accepted a position as president and CEO of the Tarrant Area Food Bank, a food bank network that oversees 450 partner agencies across 13 counties in North Texas. 

“In terms of crisis management, I’ve done a lot of that,” the 55-year-old said, citing her service in the Army during Operation Desert Storm and in the airline industry when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. 

“Having a great team and not being afraid to change and to take risks and to try things differently and think outside of the box (also helped).” 

For Butner, giving back is somewhat of a family legacy. Every generation has served in the United States armed forces, dating back to the American Revolution, she said. Butner was no exception. 

At 16, she attended Texas Christian University through an early admission program on an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. In 1988, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition Dietetics and met her husband. 

Shortly after graduating, she and her husband moved to Germany in 1990. He was with the Cavalry Unit and she, in the Reserves, as a dietician. 

“My civilian job was the same job as my weekend reserve job, serving as a dietician at a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany. And one weekend a month, I would put on my military clothes and do the same job,” Butner said. 

Then Operation Desert Storm happened in 1991. 

Butner shared how her superior had just submitted her retirement paperwork and the Army was looking for someone to activate and take her position. 

“I said, ‘I’m the lowest-ranking officer there is and you’re a lieutenant colonel.’ And she said ‘That’s OK,’” Butner, who was a lieutenant at the time, recalled. “We hadn’t been to war since Vietnam, so we weren’t sure what kind of casualties we might incur. They had set up three triage hospitals in Europe. If they had to bring soldiers out of Iraq, and they needed immediate treatment, they would first take them to Germany, and then they would go on to the United States.”

So at the age of 23, Butner was stationed at the 98th General Hospital in Germany, one of three evacuation hospitals, where she served as commander of the nutrition department. Within days, the 100-bed hospital was transformed to accommodate 1,000 beds. 

“I learned so much,” she said. “That’s kind of how I got into leadership… just learning how to respond under pressure.”

After being honorably discharged in 1992, Butner took on a job working with LSG Sky Chefs, one of the world’s largest airline catering companies. 

“I was there during 9/11. I was there during the airline industry turning upside down. The federal government required that we do inspections of anything that left our property that went onto an airplane,” Butner said. “We really had to change our operating method overnight. And I was part of that task force.”

A few years later, while working with a healthcare coalition in North Texas, Butner learned about an opening for the top executive of the Tarrant Area Food Bank. At first, she wasn’t interested in the position. But after several calls from the recruiter and four months of interviewing, Butner took the helm of the organization in January 2020. 

Butner had come full circle. In her new role, she is able to merge her diet and nutrition knowledge with her operations and management skills. 

Her philosophy? Food is medicine. 

“Unfortunately, people who are food insecure are buying and eating the worst food. There’s a direct correlation between the food we eat and the five chronic diseases in the United States,” she said. 

As president and CEO of the food bank, Butner is thinking long-term about the implication of the food that is distributed to those in need. She and the food bank team have been working to make sure fresh produce is always available and can be used to obtain protein through its recent project proposal for an agriculture hub.

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Leah King, president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County, met Butner over a decade ago at a Leadership Fort Worth class. 

King and Butner both took the lead of two large nonprofits in North Texas just before COVID-19. And that shared experience allowed them to stay in touch both in a professional and personal manner. 

Both women found ways to encourage each other and find ways to collaborate during a time of greater need in the community. 

“It was nice to speak with someone who had a fully complete understanding of what I was experiencing, and I’m sure for her vice-versa. And that could provide advice and guidance based on what we were seeing,” King said. 

Leading a large-scale operation is no easy task. And leading it during a pandemic requires a special skill set. 

“I don’t know that coming into that job and then experiencing a pandemic would have been possible for just any person, particularly someone without military experience because of her knowledge of structure processes, and logistics,” King said. “It was invaluable, and it allowed (the food bank) to quickly respond to nearly an overnight surge of need in all of the counties.”

Butner also hopes to lead by example internally. The CEO has made it clear that she doesn’t want her employees to show up at the bank for services. She’s made it her goal that they are paid a livable wage. 

“I meet with a lot of industry leaders that help support our mission. Many are disconnected from what their entry-level employees might be experiencing,” Butner said. “My philosophy is — and that’s one of the great pleasures of the job — I can actually have an impact on people’s lives.”

John Peter Smith Hospital CEO and President Karen Duncan, who sits on the food bank’s board of directors, interviewed Butner when she applied for the position. Since hiring her, Butner has not disappointed the board since Day One. 

“What you first realize about Julie when you meet her is really just her passion and her excitement for whatever she has done and whatever she plans to do. So we knew that she was not going to take this commitment lightly, that she had done her homework,” Duncan said. 

Before Butner started, Duncan said, the food bank did not boast the recognition it does today. Now, everyone knows about the nonprofit. 

“Fort Worth is a community with a lot of work going on. It’s just that work is often not shared with others, even though that need may be great for the community. And so we did see that Tarrant Area Food Bank needed to not only better define what its competencies and capabilities were what it wanted to be but it needed to get out in the community,” she said. 

While Butner has already accomplished a lot in just under three years, Duncan said, the mission of the Tarrant Area Food Bank continues. 

“We just kind of play our part in those root causes (of food insecurity),” Butler said. “Chronic diseases are a root cause, unemployment and low-paying jobs are root causes. What kind of policy systems and environmental changes can Tarrant Area Food Bank voice to support change so that people live better lives? We want people to live better lives.”

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at or on Twitter at @ssadek19.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Julie Butner’s Bio

Birthplace: Fort Hood 

Moved to Fort Worth: 2020 

Family: Husband and two dogs.

Education: Bachelor of Science in nutrition dietetics from Texas Christian University. Master’s in food systems management with a health promotion emphasis from the University of Oklahoma. 

Work experience: Captain in the Army Reserve where she served as chief nutrition care division during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm; vice president of global quality systems at LSG Group; vice-president of corporate development at Compass Group USA; vice-president of TPC.

Volunteer experience: Fort Worth Sister Cities International’s international relations and peaceful civic engagement team; yoga instructor and C.A.L.F board member for the Cowtown Marathon; president of the Texas Christian University Gamma Tau House Corporation and Fort Worth Alumnae Chapter; editorial advisory board of the Food Bank News; Fort Worth Rotary Club; nutritional sciences advisory board at Texas Christian University. 

Past volunteer experience: Leadership Fort Worth, class of 2010; chair and co-chair of the executive women’s day for the Charles Schwab Challenge; board member at Circle Theatre; training, marathon coach for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. 

First job: Worked as a dietician at Harris Methodist Hospital. 

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Exude confidence in people. Don’t be afraid. Try it: What’s the worst you can do? You can fail. And if you fail, you learn from that, too.

Best advice ever received: Listen more, talk less. Which is always hard. 

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