ACF Chef Amy Sins offers tips on helping with disaster relief

Considerations and steps to take for a successful volunteer effort in a disaster

By Amy Sins

When Hurricane Ida was about to hit — in the middle of a pandemic, no less — I feared for the worst. My brain shifted immediately to my Hurricane Katrina experience when I lost my home, and my heart sank. Born in New Orleans and raised in southern Louisiana, I’m no stranger to hurricane season. I’ve been through more than I can count.

Hurricane Ida was a tough one. She came in fast, was much more powerful than anticipated and wreaked havoc on southeast Louisiana. The damage was significant: Homes and businesses were destroyed, and our power grid was devastated.

I reached out immediately to my employees and chef friends to see how they fared. The responses ranged from minor roof damage to the loss of hundreds of pounds of meat and seafood that one of my friends purchased for her restaurant — that had just opened.  Another dear friend completely lost her home and everything in it. Relatively speaking, this was not another Katrina because no levees broke. But it was still important to spring into action to help others find safe shelter, water and food.

Chefs naturally want to help when disaster strikes by running to the scene to get to cooking and feeding. That is nothing short of noble or heartfelt. Feeding people is what we do. But after working through so many disasters, I have learned that on-site cooking is one of the last things that actually happens in the weeks following a natural disaster. Sadly, there will always be disasters in our future, so allow me to share with you some of what I have learned so that you can be prepared to jump in with both feet and make an immediate impact in your community.

Safety is No. 1. In the hierarchy of needs, making sure everyone is safe is the No. 1  priority during and after a disaster. That means assessing any injuries and seeking treatment, as well as making sure people have a safe place to sleep at night.

Oftentimes, I get calls from chefs who right away want to help out and cook food. I wish we could logistically make that happen, but too many things work against such efforts in the immediate days after a disaster. Often, there is no running water, limited or no power, no refrigeration and even dangerous conditions that can make it difficult to go from point A to point B. Trees are down, power lines are live, and entire communities may be flooded. People are being evacuated to safe locations, and that could change hourly. You showing up unannounced in a disaster zone that is still in triage may sadly hurt more than help. You could be in danger, you could put others in danger, and you may take valuable resources away from people in need.

Water, water, water. Nine times out of 10, the first thing people ask for and need immediately following a disaster is water. Water is always in short supply, and shelves are bare. We’ve had the most success purchasing 18-wheelers of water and having that water trucked into areas where it can be distributed. Waiting for the standard supply chain can take weeks.

Once that need is met or partially met, we start to move on to food, particularly nonperishables. Consider the fact that most people don’t have running water. Cleaning their hands is tough, so you don’t want people touching too much food. Choose wrapped items that don’t need to be cooked or refrigerated and are healthy, high in calories and protein-rich — simple things like granola bars or nut bars with protein and fat, as well as shelf-stable protein drinks. Don’t forget about shelf-stable fruit cups.

Connect with people on the ground who you can trust. I cannot stress this enough! There are a lot of shady people and organizations out there, and disasters can be full of misinformation.  Accurate intel, boots on the ground and people who you trust are key to success in any disaster relief mission. For me, this is about building a network, whether that’s through churches, volunteer groups or even small-town government officials. I find partners who have the right priorities in place, along with some experience working disaster relief. We work as a team to determine the needs in impacted areas. Local contacts are best: They understand the community and are deeply ingrained in it.

The most efficient way to safely feed large groups of people after a disaster is to connect with a community organization or company that has a commercial kitchen, preferably in an area not directly impacted by the disaster and try to process as much food there as possible. Trained chefs put out exponentially more food than a group of volunteers with a chef manager. I partner with Second Harvest Food Bank, Mercy Chefs and Culture Aid NOLA because they are trustworthy and reliable partners. They have volunteers and huge commercial kitchens with backup systems and are part of our regional disaster relief network.

Food safety is crucial, especially during a natural disaster. During a natural disaster, hospitals are often shut down or hard to get to because of dangerous conditions, so the last thing we want to do is make people sick. We have found the most efficient and safe way to produce food is to create boil-in-a-bag meals. To do this, a group of trained professional chefs and I will prepare the meals at a central commercial kitchen. Or in the case of the 2016 flood, ask restaurants to prepare the meals in their kitchen.

Once the food is cooled or blast-chilled and bagged, it can be frozen for transport. We recommend bagging in 10-serving packages or up to 100 servings a bag depending on the restaurant’s capability. This then allows us to safely transport the food, without the need for ice, to a response team on the ground.  We often send these bags to police stations, fire stations and local churches. Here in southern Louisiana, everyone has a giant crawfish boil pot or two and propane tanks. Now, any community hub can safely boil food in a bag, heat it to the required temperature and serve a meal without compromising the product or contaminating it. The health department will still come out and do an inspection if you’re running a cooking operation, even in the middle of a disaster. ALWAYS mind your temperatures and have thermometers at the ready everywhere.

Be creative, but not too creative. Everyone wants to know what we cook when we are able to cook. We cook GOOD FOOD. Just because you’re hungry, just because you’re dealing with a disaster, does not mean you do not deserve a delicious and beautiful meal. If it reheats well, the sky’s the limit. Favorites include New Orleans red beans and rice, chicken and andouille gumbo and crawfish and corn bisque. The No. 1 item people love are our grillades and grits. I personally love our okra and tomato stew and broccoli-and-cheese rice. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone eats meat. We try to incorporate vegetables as much as possible and balance the nutrition where we can with the donations we have. Did I mention red beans and rice? SO MUCH RED BEANS AND RICE.

At the same time, it’s important to know your audience. I once had a Vietnamese restaurant offer to donate a bunch of banh mi sandwiches. Not everyone in Louisiana has been exposed to a variety of international flavors. A disaster when people are hungry and want the familiar is not necessarily the time to broaden their palates. In that situation, we ended up finding a church with a diverse population that had been exposed to a variety of different foods; the congregation was ecstatic not to have to eat more red beans and rice. Again, people on the ground who you trust and who know the community are key.

Label anything and everything. Just because there’s a disaster doesn’t mean food allergies no longer exist. That’s why it’s important when cooking for others to label everything with the date produced, location produced and any allergens that may be present. People on-site laugh that I label the labels. There is blue tape everywhere and sharpies within reach at all times. Consider the fact that if you’re running a relief mission you have volunteers who have never cooked in a kitchen, volunteers who don’t know where to look for items and the occasional volunteer who doesn’t know that raw chicken does not go in the same ice chest as lettuce. Labeling everything — the ice chests, the tables, the cutting boards, the clean/dirty bin, the handwashing sink — keeps things organized and minimizes the need for you to answer questions during chaotic times. If everything is labeled, when a volunteer shows up, your orientation time is cut down significantly.

As chefs, we all want to cook, but during a disaster there are sometimes better ways we can truly step up and make an impact. Our knowledge of food safety, the way we manage stressful situations and complex personalities, our understanding of the brigade system and our ability to handle logistics while making difficult decisions all make us successful leaders during a disaster.

Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of National Culinary Review.