Steveanna Wynn, who grew up in Appalachian poverty only to venture to America’s poorest big city where she deployed her “rebel energy” — fueled by both a honeyed charm and a profane demeanor — battling hunger by growing Philadelphia’s Share Food Program, and feeding a generation in need through her grit and thunder, died Saturday in Nashville at 74.
The cause of death was a stroke, according to a family member.
Savvy, bighearted, and prepared to lash out at anyone “not playing nicely in the sandbox,” in her words, Ms. Wynn could “out-drink, out-swear, and out-smoke anyone,” said Sydelle Zove, a friend and former colleague. “She was larger than life, and accepting of everyone.”
Along with running Share, a nonprofit that supplies food to pantries and other entities in Philadelphia and its collar counties, Ms. Wynn was for years in charge of disbursing free commodity foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and she managed much of the money the state earmarked for the city to feed people in poverty.
In anticipation of a Katrina-like catastrophe striking Philadelphia, Ms. Wynn served as the USDA-designated regional leader who would be responsible for getting emergency food to everyone who needed it.
She also used the Share warehouse on Hunting Park Avenue as an incubator for agencies she helped develop, including the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network, and Sunday Suppers.
Ms. Wynn, who began working at Share in 1989, left in 2018 to help her son, Christopher, care for her three grandchildren in Nashville after her former daughter-in-law died.
Ms. Wynn’s departure had been greeted with deflated incredulity by the people she’d helped, as well as by the antihunger advocates she mentored, all of whom saw her as an indispensable giant, a key weaver of the safety net that stretches, fraying and thin, beneath people in poverty.
“Twenty years ago, she took me in, trained me up, and encouraged me to stay tough and be kind at the same time,” said Mariana Chilton, nationally known antihunger advocate at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “Those of us who work on hunger will be tapping into her rebel energy and spreading it for decades to come.”
Ms. Wynn grew up on a farm in Narrows, Va. Her father worked for the Celanese chemical company and ran a farm-equipment sales business with Ms. Wynn’s mother, a substitute teacher.
Friends say Ms. Wynn learned from her father not to be judgmental, which led to her civil rights work in the South. Her mother, in turn, urged Wynn to leave Narrows, which she said was too small a place for a smart woman.
After college, Wynn moved away, then married and divorced twice. “I’m not a good picker of husbands,” she once said. At 26, she returned to Narrows and worked with a community action center. “It was what I was meant to do,” she declared in a 2012 interview.
Ms. Wynn said she learned to fight for those in poverty in part because of the shabby way her son, who’d been dyslexic, was treated. “I fought many battles for him with schools,” Ms. Wynn said. “I learned that being nasty produces results that being nice doesn’t. That’s when my evil twin came out.”
Gail Johnson, who’s worked with Share for 23 years as its administrative manager, said she “saw the evil twin a lot.” Johnson added that it was difficult for a Southern woman new to Philadelphia to be taken seriously, especially on the warehouse loading dock where truck drivers tried to push her around until she learned “how to be a ballbuster, throwing around those f-bombs.”
Tired of seeing men wreck her forklifts, Johnson said, Ms. Wynn bought a purple one, believing (correctly, it turned out) that macho guys wouldn’t want to operate anything that fancy. Once, Ms. Wynn jumped off the forklift and into a driverless truck that had been rolling toward another vehicle to prevent a collision in the parking lot.
“Damn,” Johnson remembered saying at the time, “I work for Wonder Woman.”
As tough as Ms. Wynn appeared, however, she’d become emotional contemplating individuals struggling with hunger. Though the warehouse wasn’t designed for people who’d show up to ask for food, Ms. Wynn would accommodate anyone who did, “with tears in her eyes, grabbing boxes for them,” Johnson said.
People who run nonprofits don’t always interact with those they’re helping. But Ms. Wynn was famous for it, with the flexibility to load onions onto trucks, meet with corporate donors, testify before the USDA, then sit for hours with low-income individuals, “giving them a sense of pride and dignity,” according to Jude Meckling, a Portland, Ore., Episcopal priest who volunteered at Share.
Meckling said that Ms. Wynn, who’d paddle in the same dragon boat as she did, would command a huge corps of some 2,000 volunteers, from CEOs to individuals experiencing homelessness: “She put them together deliberately, creating community.”
Unknown to most of the city, Johnson said, Ms. Wynn had for years been in a “silent war” with Philabundance, the hunger relief agency that Share ultimately surpassed as the largest distributor of emergency food in the area.
Glenn Bergman, who recently resigned from running Philabundance, said Ms. Wynn’s fight was with previous leaders “who wanted to merge with Share,” which Ms. Wynn resisted. “She could be opinionated, but for her, Share was a mission,” said Bergman. A Philabundance spokesperson praised Ms. Wynn on Monday as a “tireless advocate.”
George Matysik, current executive director of Share, said Ms. Wynn was “1,000% the reason” why the agency grew to now be equipped to distribute 5 million pounds of food a month.
Still reeling from the loss, Sydelle Zove said, “It’s unthinkable that all Steveanna’s dynamism is gone. Where does it go?”
In addition to her son and grandchildren, Ms. Wynn is survived by other relatives. A memorial service will be held in Franklin, Tenn., on Saturday. Another is planned in Philadelphia later in the spring.