Since 2001, Randi Shubin Dresner has served as the president and chief executive officer of Island Harvest Food Bank, a leading Long Island-based hunger relief organization working to end hunger and reduce food waste in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The organization's dedicated and compassionate team of volunteers and staff deliver millions of pounds of good quality, surplus food to a network of approximately 450 Long Island-based food pantries, soup kitchens and other non-profit organizations. Randi is also a member of the New York State Council on Hunger and Food Policy. Read on to find out what inspires Randi, what she would change about the food system and how technology has helped Island Harvest fight hunger and food waste.
Tell us about the important role that Island Harvest plays on Long Island and the regional food system?
Island Harvest Food Bank is a critical bridge between people with excess food and those who need it. In addition to addressing the needs of the approximately 316,000 food-insecure Long Islanders with food, we also provide support services that include job training, assistance applying for SNAP (formerly food stamps) and nutritional guidance, among other programs. In addition, Island Harvest Food Bank is a lead agency in disaster preparedness and response, working in concert with the American Red Cross and the Office of Emergency Management in both counties.
What was the genesis of Island Harvest?
Back in 1992, our founder, Linda Breitstone, was shocked to see perfectly good food being thrown out at a convenience store when there was a shelter nearby that could have desperately used it. So, armed with a cooler, a station wagon and grit determination, Island Harvest was born.
When and how did you get involved in this work?
In elementary school, I was the first to raise my hand to volunteer for a community project impacting birth defects. I saw firsthand at that young age how one person can indeed make a difference and that there was important work to be done at the community level to support that cause and many others. I soon felt the positive impacts of volunteering in my own life. As a youngster, I felt good with the work I was accomplishing. I was thrilled also to find that I could involve others around me (at school and home) and in fact, learned that I could make a career out of that good work.
How can technology help reduce food waste and hunger and, in general, make the food system more sustainable?
For us at Island Harvest Food Bank, technology upgrades in the past two years dramatically improved our organization's efficiency and accuracy. Through a generous multi-year grant we have been able to completely upgrade our warehousing system to a high-end bar-coding software inventory system. The upgrade has allowed us to record, track and move our inventory more quickly and with much greater accuracy.
What are some specific ways people can encourage food recovery while fighting food waste and hunger?
Food recovery at the community level is somewhat easy. Community members can encourage their residents and businesses to plan ahead when hosting functions that are overseen by caterers to donate surplus food. Local stores can support the effort by working in partnership with their local food banks to arrange for ongoing pickups of dented cans, close to code dated products, less than first-grade produce and dairy and meats that are close to "sell by" dates. Most food banks have programs in place to partner with businesses to recover good healthy foods and deliver them to their own mobile programs and to local food pantries, soup kitchens and other community organizations who distribute the food to the community.
What's one thing about hunger and poverty that you wish more people knew?
That it also takes much more than donating a few cans of food to end hunger in local communities. It takes funds and other important resources. And also that hunger is indeed prevalent on Long Island, affecting 316,000 Long Islanders in just about every ZIP code in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Regional resilience is an important concept and practice that many communities are increasingly focused on. How does regional resilience relate to your work?
The staff and leadership of Island Harvest Food Bank understand the importance of resiliency quite well. Offering creative answers to the emergent effects of hunger on our children, families and society as a whole is a daily commitment. In the weeks and months of the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, we worked alongside first responders and other organizations deep into storm-impacted communities, Island wide. We provided food, supplies and other services to those affected and to the first responders with whom we worked hand-in-hand. Our Hauppauge Distribution Center stockpiles emergency supplies such as bottled water and meals ready-to-eat (MREs). To help the region bounce back after disasters, we've learned to become nimble and adapt to changing circumstances, such as the Great Recession of 2008 that saw an uptick in the numbers of Long Islanders seeking food assistance for the first time.
Could you provide an example of an improvement to regional resilience that relates to addressing food insecurity?
In the years since Sandy, nonprofit organizations have found new ways to work together to carry out their individual mission and to create new goals of holistically supporting those most vulnerable. We have also looked to find new partnerships to approach ways to support their needs. Improved communications among non-profit and community organizations, political leaders, the business community and the general public are important. We continue to look to find ways to strengthen those relationships.
What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day-to-day?
As a team, our organization is strong and resourceful. We take pride in our drive to remain mission-centered and focused. I am also encouraged by the energy and determination of our team, our funders and volunteers.
Is there a particular inspirational story you can share with us?
Ms. W is a single mom of three. When her youngest, just eight months old, was born, they found a heart condition that required immediate surgery. With no stable support systems in place to help, she moved forward with determination to ensure the health and well-being of her youngest and her other two children and remain independent. She was forced to take a leave from her job. After a car accident, she could not afford to have her car repaired, or tend to the injuries she sustained -- because she needed to focus on her young children. We found resources to help her get back on her feet, and now Ms. W is getting ready to get back to work, her children are healthy, her car is repaired, and they are living in a stable and safe home.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the food system?
I'd like to see greater participation by food producers to help in addressing the hunger issue by producing less food waste that enters local landfills. I would hope to see more engagement from the business community and more open-mindedness about donating food rather than throwing it away. Programs like Stop & Shop's "Meat the Needs" program and the contribution of excess produce by Long Island's farmers supplemented approximately 1,950,935 meals with much-needed protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables in 2015. The efforts of just these two organizations alone are having a tangible impact on our efforts to improve the nutritional intake of those we serve while lessening the amount of food that will end up in landfills. I would like to see others learning from this model and consider creative ways that they can direct excess surplus foods to those who depend on donated foods.
Keep up with Randi and Island Harvest: