RALEIGH — Joe Novak, who ran advanced engineering services at Cisco Systems in RTP, showed up again for work Thursday morning — at the Food Bank of North Carolina in Raleigh.

“We live in a high-tech world, and we take it for granted,” he said. “Our biggest concern is our commute to RTP.

“Sometimes we lose track of the challenges other people face. If we’re not careful, we become oblivious to them.”

Each day for the past four months as part of a Cisco fellowship program, Novak has briefly set aside his executive career track at the networking giant to help the Food Bank. He’s assisting them in setting up a virtual private wide area network to link its six branch offices in an attempt to improve efficiency, data collection and distribution. And Novak, a 10-year Cisco veteran, is doing what he can to help with business planning and other tools of the management trade he has learned at Cisco.

“This has been immensely rewarding both personally and professionally,” Novak said after Cisco announced a donation of $627,000 in cash and another $60,000 in equipment to the Food Bank. Having grown up in southern West Virginia, Novak said he had experienced hardship of his own. And while sitting in church one Sunday he said he decided to discover a way to help others. With the assistance of Cisco’s Human Resources department and fellow executive Joe Freddoso, Novak joined the fellowship program and was placed at the Food Bank.

“To me, it’s been hand-in-glove,” he said with a smile.

‘A burning need’

Proudly wearing a gray Food Bank T-shirt, he pitched in to help a group of other Cisco employees and former Hurricanes president Jim Cain sort food and pack boxes Thursday morning. He, Cain and others then talked about the remarkable commitment Cisco employees, its foundation and also chairman John Morgridge have made to help the Food Bank deal with ever-increasing demands for its services.

“There is a burning need to be addressed,” said Cain, who has volunteered to lead a capital fund-raising drive of $6.5 million to $10 million for the Food Bank. “One company has stepped up to meet the challenge. Cisco. It’s a remarkable commitment. A remarkable commitment.”

Donating to the Food Bank is not something new for Cisco. The RTP employees donate cash and even have a unique Halloween party where execs and others do a number of zany things to encourage money. (RTP site director Ed Carney dyes his hair, noting that the Food Bank “has become part of our culture”.) Since 1996, any money employees raised was matched by the Foundation and then matched again by Morgridge. The total amount now exceeds $2 million.

The match was “double-matched” this year because of the pressing need at the Food Bank, according to a Cisco spokesperson.

But the new donation is by far the largest — and doesn’t include the hours Cisco employees regular contribute as volunteers at the Food Bank.

Haywood Holderness, chairman of the Food Bank board who is the minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, acknowledged the gift in glowing terms.

“Most of us have been crunched,” he said, referring to the current economic woes. And he noted Cisco went through its own round of painful layoffs in 2001. He called Cisco “a patron saint — from the top all the way down.”

However, as he and others acknowledged, even with the Cisco donations the Food Bank can’t meet the demands of the needed.

“There are a lot of people a whole lot worse off than we are,” the Rev. Holderness said. “We cannot get the food to homes, to shelters, to pantries fast enough.”

Using technology to fight hunger

Novak said he is convinced the Cisco network will assist the Food Bank enough that enough resources to employee six people can be re-directed toward getting more food. He pointed out that other Cisco employees are helping with the installation of the network and training to use it. One use, he added, would be to compile data on Food Bank recipients who have special dietetic needs, such as diabetes. Another use will be to gather data on what food is being distributed where in order to ensure a better balance of staples.

“Hopefully, we are designing a template that can be used at other food banks,” he said.

Jane Cox, the executive director of the Food Bank, praised Cisco for “championing” the Food Bank and noted that the network will help it and other agencies with which the Food Bank works to be more efficient and effective in combating hunger.

Novak openly acknowledged he had been inspired to work even harder for the Food Bank after seeing what takes place at the huge facility just off Atlantic Avenue in North Raleigh.

“It’s amazing to see how many people, especially children and young people, who volunteer to work here,” he said. “A lot of children have birthday parties where they ask that presents be canned goods that they can bring to the Food Bank. Then they all come here to work.”

(For more information about the Food Bank and how you can help, visit: www.foodbanknc.org

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.