Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana

Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana

Note: Find this full Q&A at APHA’s Get Ready Campaign, which helps Americans prepare themselves, their families and their communities for all disasters and hazards, including pandemic flu, infectious disease, natural disasters and other emergencies.

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 the many public health benefits of food donations.

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.