Use this disaster to inform your response to the next

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to prominence the role that America’s foodbanks have played as a critical centerpiece of community response to the surge in food insecurity.

In the Midwest, where natural disasters are infrequent, most communities have not seen their foodbanks in action like this, and the scale of their response work has been a pleasant surprise. The frequent media shots of long lines of cars being served at parking lot food distributions popping up in some high-profile locations tells a story about responsiveness and hustle that those of us in the work are proud of. Certainly, in the early stages of the pandemic, we had to be nimble and flex a ton of our practices to scale up our work in a hurry. But a lot of those models were born out of a long history of disaster response work in the Feeding America network that prepared us to meet this moment.

When major disasters strike, Feeding America does a great job coordinating resources and logistics across the network. Our foodbank in Akron has sent a lot of its food and people to various parts of the country to assist in disaster response work, most notably after Hurricane Katrina. More than any single event, Hurricane Katrina was the defining event in our country’s development of a coordinated, scaled, national charitable food response to disasters.

Immediately after a disaster hits, there is a frantic assessment phase. Disasters destroy infrastructure, and that happened with COVID. A lot of charitable partners closed immediately, so an assessment of what resources were available (food, in our case), what was in the immediate pipeline (in the case of COVID initially, not much) and an account of the long-term resource outlook was required. Oftentimes, charities are as challenged by a flood of unexpected and sometimes unneeded loads as they are by what they’re lacking. We learned all of these lessons, big time, during Katrina.

These experiences made disaster planning a major priority at foodbanks. Grant funding was made available though Feeding America, as well as peer learning and mentoring, for the development of local plans. In Akron, we went into COVID with a detailed response plan that has been next to my desk for the past year. Of course, every situation is different, but having a general sense of what’s about to go down is a tremendous comfort when you’re trying to lead an organization through an experience like this.

You know it’s going to be hard. You know it’s going to wear out the staff. You know you have to flex and make it happen. That is a comfort as a leader, and the people around you can sense it.

So maybe this was your first time around and you’re not feeling like you nailed every step. Don’t sweat it. Think how much better off you’ll be next time. Meanwhile, consider taking the time to create a business continuity plan, or disaster plan (whatever you want to call it) before the next one hits.

As COVID has taught us, and as the old saying goes, it’s better to have a plan and no crisis than a crisis and no plan.

Daniel Flowers is president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank