Food banks play a vital role in preparedness

Why you should donate to your local food bank year-round

Q&A with Natalie Jayroe of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana

Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana is the largest hunger-fighting organization in Louisiana. The organization reaches 23 parishes from Mississippi to the Texas border, serving about half of Louisiana’s population. Second Harvest helps 210,000 people a year, distributing the equivalent of more than 30 million meals annually. Besides addressing hunger, the organization plays an important role during times of disasters. APHA’s Get Ready campaign spoke recently with Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana about that role.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 1 million people in New Orleans. By September, you’d become the “largest food bank in the world’s history.” Tell us about that.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita really focused the nation in a way that never occurred to it before regarding how to respond to this massive disaster. So many people had lost everything that they owned. And suddenly from the standpoint of the emergency food systems, we were not just supplementing food that people could buy for themselves and their families.

Often we were giving them life-saving food as people struggled to put their households back together from the ground up. And we were doing it in an environment where all the infrastructure had suffered the same kind of catastrophic damage.

For instance, the community centers and many of the nonprofits that we traditionally worked with to distribute food were not in operation either. They had also suffered flooding or the people that worked there had been displaced. The city itself closed down, we had no electricity for quite some time, so we as Second Harvest were also displaced.

Many people don’t make the connection between disasters and the role of food banks. How would you explain that to them? Why are food banks so important after a disaster?

Great question. First of all, we consider hunger a disaster, whether it is suffered by a single child or an entire community. For us, it becomes a matter of scale and then environment, and what we actually need to do to respond to the environment that we’re in.

For instance, for most of the country the economic recession that occurred in 2008 would be considered a disaster — a different type of disaster than a natural disaster, but a disaster still.

Of course, natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wipe out the infrastructure in a way that no one can be prepared for. You don’t have the transportation systems anymore, the schools are not open, the grocery stores are not open and the police are not there.

It’s amazing when you are confronted by that situation and you think about what it takes to put a community back together from the ground up. And of course, food plays a central role. It is a basic need before virtually any other basic need. Food banks always respond, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught us, the Feeding America Food Bank Network, a lot.

It also taught our government partners a lot. Because what the state, (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) realized in this situation was that they did not have enough of a distribution system to actually get food out to vulnerable people in 23 parishes. They needed to partner with the organizations that are on the ground in the neighborhoods serving those people every single day. It was a huge learning experience for the entire state.

We basically pulled out all of the stops and just got the work done, distributed as much help as we possibly could as fast as we could. But we built relationships out of that. One of the things about food banks that positions us in a way that we can help beyond the fact that we serve in neighborhoods is that we also don’t evacuate.

In our case, for instance, our building is full generator power. When a hurricane threatens, we prepare for it, we bring in certain supplies and then as soon as it is safe to operate our trucks we are operating again. Unlike some of the shelters that may take a few days to get up, we are distributing food as soon as it’s safe for our trucks to get out on the road.

What actions does Second Harvest take to prepare local residents for disasters?

No two disasters are the same. Our approach to preparing for a disaster is, first of all, to plan.

Because we know when hurricane season begins and Second Harvest quoteends, we at the food bank start our planning before hurricane season. First, we make sure that we have an ample supply of safe water, which is always needed in any kind of disaster. And then we put in stocks of supplies that we have that people can use if they do not have power — pop-top cans of food and other things that do not take power to prepare.

There is another way we prepare, and that relates to pandemics. We actually have an agreement or a memorandum of understanding with the Louisiana Office of Public Health. Because as we have learned these lessons with Katrina and Rita, the state has realized that there are other types of disasters that could occur, and a pandemic is one of those things. They realized that they could have the same distribution issues and that food banks could really help.

If a pandemic were to strike south Louisiana, we could distribute non-medical models of vaccines right from our warehouse dock to all of those partners — those small entities and neighborhood organizations — that we have partnerships with across the southern part of the state. And that’s our way of trying to get a vaccine that could be lifesaving into the hands of particularly vulnerable people who may not be able to get to a central location that a state might be running.

APHA’s Get Ready campaign encourages people to donate to their local food banks so they can be ready to serve the community during disasters. Is there a best time of year to hold a food drive to support a food bank like Second Harvest?

Yes. For Second Harvest, for those of us that get ready for hurricane season — because we know that it is something that we potentially face every year — a food drive around April or May so that we are putting in supplies before the beginning of the hurricane season, which starts on June 1 could be incredible.

We typically have less food drives at that time of year. Because if you think about it, kids are leaving school, families are starting to take vacations, so that’s generally a quiet time as far as public support to food banks goes. So, yes, absolutely, food drives at that time of year that focus specifically on jars of peanut butter, cans of tuna fish and stews and soups in a can — things that people can eat without having to prepare it — would be fabulous.

What do you think is unique about the approach of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana in comparison to that of other food banks?

Because of our experience and also where we started — how…we consider hunger a disaster every day. That philosophy where we recognize that the child that we are serving right now with our summer feeding programs is saving a potential disaster of their own, which is just as important to them as an entire community that moves because of a natural disaster like a hurricane.

The philosophy that hunger is always a disaster and that we have to be thoughtful and prepared as much as we possibly can to adapt what we are doing and meet that disaster of hunger, however it hits our community, is unique.

Learning that lesson has caused us to form really close partnerships with the state, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, with USDA on disaster response and with the Office of Public Health so that we know which of our member partners — our neighborhood organizations — will stay and be prepared to operate with us on the ground. And we are very comfortable with the fact that we are a disaster response organization.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

In thinking about community resilience, which we have put a lot of thought into, it’s really important that we bring all the partners to the table to come up with plans of how to cope with the massive situations.

Certainly with a tornado or a flooding, for the person who is (being affected), it is as devastating as any other disaster would be. But the kinds of conversations that we have had about how to support an entire community when there is this massive type of destruction and displacement are really, really important and have helped us think through our mission better and the part that we can play.

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed July 2016 by Alexis Doyle.

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