Power Lunch: A Food Executive's Raw View of Haiti

July 21, 2010
Malt-O-Meal CFO returns from the devastated nation and asks for the unique help the food & beverage industry can provide.

I just returned from my first visit to Haiti as the board chair of the American Refugee Committee, a global relief organization that operates refugee camps all around the world. It's headquartered in the "bread basket of America," Minneapolis, as am I. My day job is that of chief financial officer for Minnesota's "other" cereal company.

My experience in Haiti presented an awakening on so many personal and professional levels. Experiencing such grim realities up close forces one to look at everything else back home through a revealing lens. I've not only redoubled my commitment to the real need for a vigilant and smart corporate social response to such emergencies; but also to the special awareness of the role that food companies play when humanitarian disaster strikes.

Thankfully, we work in an industry in which it is not unusual, at least among my cohort of food companies, to play a central and active role when a humanitarian crisis occurs. That said, I also know that in a practical sense, among most companies, disasters such as the Haiti earthquake present a dilemma for corporate executives. We are moved by devastation and human suffering but often struggle with how to respond. Financial contributions for disaster relief do not neatly fit into corporate giving strategies as they do not directly benefit our customers, nor do they usually fall within our areas of operational expertise.

Food companies play an important role, and we should. As with medical supply companies and hospitals, we have it in our DNA to step forward when things go terribly wrong. We must embrace this role among the community of corporate citizens.

If companies are divided into "head" and "heart" categories, food companies seem to fit the latter. Perhaps it is because we are especially close to the daily needs of people, and as such we play a critical role in inspiring fellow corporations into action.

The undeniable connections among food, shelter, sanitation, health and stability for all families was an important thing for me to witness, on the ground and up close, in Haiti.

I live a professional life more familiar with the world of bean counters than of relief workers, airlifts, tarp purchases, latrine construction and U.N. negotiations over emergency clinics and land settlements. The American Refugee Committee operates refugee camps around the world, but never before in Haiti. I was awestruck by how quickly the organization mobilized and was on the ground making a difference.

And I'm not the only one who noticed. The United Nations has tapped ARC to be one of the "go-to" stewards to establish large numbers of these life-saving camps. As the rainy season exacerbates conditions in Haiti, ARC is a linchpin for managing settlement camps, protecting women and children and building medical care capacity.

This important work cannot happen without the intense support of food companies of all stripes. McDonald's, Hormel, Whole Foods, my own company Malt-O-Meal and many, many others have made important contributions to the overall effort in Haiti. Financial contributions, such as my own company's dedication of a portion of revenues from certain lines earmarked for Haiti relief, are essential.

Beyond money, corporate involvement is lending industry-specific talents that also are unmistakably benefiting the earthquake survivors. Technical experts are working to improve the disastrous situation, including architects, doctors and other health care professionals, engineers, ground-water professionals and logistics experts. ARC is working with the University of Minnesota in a variety of areas, from civic planning and design to business case studies, with the ultimate goal of developing best practices for international relief.

Food industry professionals can make a critical difference. For example, overcoming intractable logistical situations is the calling card of every food industry veteran. The situation in Haiti is of nightmare proportions. Your talents and your professional attention continue to be sorely needed.
It is who we are. It is what we must continue to do.

The images in my mind from Haiti remain raw, gnawing at finding an appropriate response and an equilibrium as I resume my daily personal and professional life.

I know firsthand that while the situation in Haiti has disappeared from the nightly newscasts, the disaster is not over. If your food or beverage company has not already committed to some type of Haitian relief effort, suggest it to your leaders. If it has, see how you personally can join and support it. Or call your local chapter of the American Red Cross or connect with me directly at [email protected] to learn more about the efforts of the American Refugee Committee. Whatever you choose, offer your time, your unique talents or at least your financial support.

Though much work lies ahead, what's clear to me now is how much of our success as a society and as a profession is grounded in how we respond when called upon to do so. The food industry has a special calling, united by work that addresses the daily needs of our consumers. This is both a blessing and a curse — believe me I know. But that is exactly the point that we must not forget, nor shy away from. Because our success in fulfilling the promise of living up to who we are, in this case, is helping to save a generation of people in Haiti.