Preparedness & Recovery

Emergency Managers Collaborate on New Strategies for Mass Feeding During Disasters

The new Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template should help make mass feeding across jurisdictions easier.

by / September 1, 2010
Organized mass feeding stations, such as this one during Hurricane Katrina, were too few along the Gulf Coast. Photo courtesy of Win Henderson/FEMA. Win Henderson/FEMA

[Photo: Organized mass feeding stations, such as this one during Hurricane Katrina, were too few along the Gulf Coast. Photo courtesy of Win Henderson/FEMA.]

When Hurricane Katrina tore through the United States’ Gulf Coast in August 2005, the people of New Orleans experienced devastation for which few were prepared. Mayor Ray Nagin ordered an evacuation on Aug. 28, but when the storm made landfall in Louisiana two days later, those who remained had to deal with chaos. Within days, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater and thousands of people sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome. After Katrina passed, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals estimated that 1,464 lives were lost.

But the tragedy didn’t lie just with the storm — it was also the failure of emergency management forces to adequately feed the survivors.

According to a U.S. House of Representatives report, most shelters and hospitals lacked adequate food or potable water for days after the hurricane’s landfall. The mayor called the Superdome a “refuge of last resort,” not intended to house and provide food and water for thousands of people over several days. Other evacuation points, like the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, lacked food or water. A September 2005 USA Today editorial claimed that “every level of government that was supposed to prepare for the storm and its aftermath failed miserably.”

And the disasters kept coming. CNN reported that in 2008 — the year of hurricanes Ike and Gustav — there was a major hurricane every month from July to November in the North Atlantic.

“In 2008, when Ike and Gustav hit Louisiana and Texas, there were multiple problems in the delivery of feeding,” said Michael Whitehead, the state mass care officer for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. “The food was getting to the people, but the process was very ugly, and there was a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering by the emergency managers.”

So he and some colleagues got to thinking — what if there were a way for disaster responders to coordinate feeding efforts whenever crises occur that are too big for one organization to handle? They convened following the 2008 hurricane season and after a lengthy brainstorming process, composed the Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template, a document designed to make mass feeding across jurisdictions easier.

“Past disasters like Hurricane Ike and earlier mass feeding efforts have taught us that a comprehensive plan that includes our federal, state and local partners, including the private sector, is vital to making sure that people are fed during and in the aftermath of a disaster,” said Peggy Mott, a specialist in mass care at FEMA.

Meeting of the Minds

Mott was one of several emergency management professionals who worked to get the correct words down on paper. She said a work group started with five volunteer organizations that met for a daylong strategy session, followed by biweekly webinars. This expanded to 50 participants from the private sector and all levels of government. The feeding plan template has undergone multiple iterations, and a recent version was released in spring 2010.

But some people came to the planning table with feeding mishaps not related to hurricanes. Kevin Smith, state disaster services director of the Salvation Army, recalled problems people had with the 2008 Iowa flood.

“For 10 days, they expected around 100,000 or more people to be without resources for food because of the flood taking out all of Cedar Rapids at the time,” he said. “No one had enough resources to deal with that quantity of people for that sustained amount of time, so we started trying to pull pieces from everywhere to try to pull it together.”

FEMA facilitated this collaboration, which Whitehead was a part of along with groups including the Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and the American Red Cross.

The template is a 50-plus-page, how-to guide instructing regional emergency management forces on how to work with the federal government to feed a public that’s in chaos. It’s customizable, so any group can adapt it to their need and region. An earthquake in California, for example, might involve different feeding players than a hurricane on the Gulf Coast or a tornado in Kansas.

“I think it’s absolutely significant, especially in those that are large municipalities when you think of Atlanta or New York,” Smith said. “Anyone who has an emergency management function within a municipality should consider that plan.”

The template is customizable and ready to go for any city, county or state group that’s going to be in the field helping, since most feeding efforts will invariably involve more than one group with multiple, overlapping areas to service.

“It’s a template for each agency to create a feeding plan,” Whitehead said. He and co-workers in Florida took the national document, adapted it locally and tested it during a June 2009 hurricane exercise. Whitehead said Florida is encouraging other states to use its template to develop feeding plans.

Customized Disaster Relief

Once the feeding plan has been adapted for a specific region, the local feeding plan should call for the creation of a Feeding Task Force to coordinate the organizations that will supply food, water and action plans. The meals will come from a variety of forces, including contracts with commercial facilities, mobile kitchens, mobile delivery vehicles, churches, community organizations and local businesses.

Ideally the players in the task force and supporting organizations will have hammered out the plan details and established these relationships before a disaster occurs. The template is meant as a proactive guide, not a reactive one.

“I hope it will spur discussions at all levels, so that before a disaster happens, we have a good working relationship to make sure that the transitions and the delivery of necessary feeding to the affected communities happens seamlessly,” said Scott Meyer, a mass care and feeding senior associate in the Disaster Services division of the American Red Cross. He said the template’s goal is to keep things short and sweet — get everyone on the same page and working together smoothly. 

“That’s the point of it,” he said. “We want to make sure that those who are involved with disaster feeding on any level are at the table and are working in concert with one another so that the people who are affected are getting what they need.” 

The template also specifies feeding phases that organizations need to identify — immediate, sustained and long term — to determine how the process will work.

Whitehead thinks officials in Florida would have a good handle on things. “Step No. 1 is, we’re going to define how big this disaster is,” he said. “Is this a 50,000-meal-a-day disaster, a 200,000-meal-a-day disaster or a 500,000-meal-a-day disaster?”

Whitehead and company are spreading the word about the template to other emergency management forces by giving presentations about it at conferences, and Whitehead introduced the multiagency feeding plan concept during training he’s conducted. He and others behind the template’s creation also have developed a Feeding Task Force document to help adopters create task forces to help implement the steps outlined in the Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template.

“We expect that the documents will be updated as needed,” Mott said. “New lessons learned will be incorporated as they arise to ensure that we are always meeting the needs of disaster survivors and communities in the event of an emergency.”

They expect the documents to benefit emergency management in the future, but it’s too soon to analyze a laundry list of disasters that have been handled by those who’ve adopted the teachings. Still, Whitehead and Smith said people have had the chance to modify it based on lessons learned from Hurricane Gustav, past floods and training like the hurricane exercise Whitehead spoke of in Florida.

Planning will come in handy with organizations that are new to the mass-feeding arena. “Challenges happen when other agencies that may not have been in disasters before step in and want to get involved,” Meyer said. “And it’s not that we don’t want them involved. It’s that they may not understand the mechanisms and intricacies of doing a disaster operation, and the demands that a disaster operation places on an entity to do sheltering, feeding or any aspect.”
And even those organizations with disaster experience don’t always see eye to eye.

“People aren’t always talking to each other, and different agencies have different expectations of what other agencies are supposed to be doing,” Whitehead said. “By doing the coordination required to develop the plan among all the stakeholders, you establish that communication you need in a disaster.”

Download the Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template at

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Emergency Management magazine.