Food Industry Actively Participates in Katrina Relief

The food industry actively participates in relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina, donating money and, of course, food.

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By Heidi Parsons, Digital Managing Editor

What do you say to a man who was recently plucked from the attic of his flood-ravaged home after a week of precarious survival? For starters, how about, "here you go," as you hand him a box of ready-to-consume food and beverages?

As the massive relief effort for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina continues, monetary donations continue to come in from across America and from other nations as well. Beyond financial aid, U.S. food processors are also contributing more immediately gratifying - i.e., edible - supplies.

Kraft and Tyson each have pledged more than $1 million in food and financial donations, and PepsiCo has committed $2 million - $1 million for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and $1 million for the Salvation Army. Kellogg has promised $500,000 in food and monetary donations, and Hickory Farms has sent $90,000 worth of products down to the Delta region.

(Nestlé USA and ConAgra Foods have not released information on the value of their contributions, although both firms say they have donated food and money and, like many other firms, are matching employee contributions dollar for dollar.)

"Our donor companies have been incredibly generous," observes Shelly Elfstrom, with America's Second Harvest's food sourcing group. "Some of us are wondering how long the [food] industry will be able to keep up this level of giving."

Relief operations in full swing in Biloxi, Miss. Photo courtesy of America's Second Harvest.

America's Second Harvest, based in Chicago, is the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the U.S. Its network collects food and grocery products - from food processors, retailers, distributors, restaurants and other foodservice entities - and distributes them to its member food banks and other organizations. Those agencies then distribute the food and grocery products to some 35,000 programs that operate 50,000 feeding agencies nationwide.

Without providing specifics, Elfstrom says she's aware that the scope and the urgency of the need for food products have prompted some processors to find creative solutions. For example, she knows of at least one firm that was able to put obsolete packaging materials to use to pack relief-ready product. Other companies are making product specifically for disaster relief, running extra batches of shelf-stable items.

Besides the amount and types of food items donated, the other difference between relief operations and the typical donation process is in how product is transported. Normally, America's Second Harvest sends trucks to pick up product from processing plants. For Gulf Coast disaster relief, processors are providing their own trucks and working with Second Harvest to get the truckloads of food to the distribution sites where they are needed most.

In the thick of it

Geographically speaking, some processors are more directly involved in the Gulf Coast relief effort than others. Kraft Foods' Northfield, Ill., headquarters are a long way from the Mississippi Delta, but the company does have 250 employees and 10 small facilities in the areas devastated by Katrina. Kraft spokesperson Kris Charles says the firm's facilities - not processing plants but freezer depots and direct-store-delivery operations - sustained relatively minor damage, but the biggest relief to Kraft is that all of its area employees are safe.

As of mid-September, Kraft had sent 13 truckloads of beverages, snacks, cookies and other non-perishables to the Gulf Coast. Charles says Kraft headquarters and plant staff are working together to determine what sorts of in-kind food and beverage products they can continue to send. The remainder of Kraft's contribution is financial, with grants going to Second Harvest, AmeriCares and the American Red Cross.

Tyson Foods has gone into the Katrina relief effort with both barrels. With four of its facilities (and several allied feed mills, hatcheries and contract growers) located in hard-hit sections of Mississippi, Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson had no choice but to take this crisis personally.

"This disaster really hit home to us, because four plants and thousands of our team members, as well as the communities they live in, were directly affected by Katrina," notes Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson. "Within hours after the hurricane left, we had several truckloads of food, water and ice down in central Mississippi."

Within a day or two, Tyson employees from Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas had pitched in, bringing generators, food and other supplies to the towns of Carthage, Forest and Vicksburg, Miss. They established teams of people to cook and serve meals, not just for Tyson employees, but for all the storm victims in those areas.

By Sept. 1, Tyson had also donated several truckloads of pre-cooked and shelf-stable meats to the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross; sent a truckload of product to Jackson, Miss.; and provided food and a truck to transport a mobile kitchen to Prairieville, La., so that a disaster relief group could prepare meals for storm refugees there.

Since then, Tyson also has sent truckloads of food to evacuee centers in Baton Rouge, La., and Fort Chaffee and Pine Bluff, Ark. The company is matching dollar-for-dollar donations to relief efforts from its 114,000 team members. Most importantly from a long-term recovery standpoint, Tyson is offering employment opportunities (including relocation assistance, transportation and temporary housing) to evacuees who are looking for jobs. This is not a quiet, web site-based effort, but one that has been promoted via press releases and during a Katrina relief telethon broadcast on Black Entertainment Television (BET). Tyson has established a toll free number – 1-800-424-WORK – through which job seekers may apply.

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