A Look at Second Harvest of East Tennessee with Director Elaine Streno
When you think of foodservice, few think of the individuals charged with the role of providing for the hungry. After sitting down and talking with Elaine Streno, Director of Second Harvest Food bank of East Tennessee, it became evident that her monumental role in the foodservice industry is an integral element in a complex system.
As director, Streno serves as a direct extension of the network created by the foodservice industry and a grass root, community effort to feed the hungry.
Feeding America and Their Affiliates
In the 1950s through the early 70’s, millions of tractor-trailer loads of good food were being hauled to landfills across the country. Various community activists had begun small-scale operations to divert food from a wasteful fate but it wasn’t until the Feeding America network was started in the mid 70’s that communities could make an impact on a large scale.
Once established, communities began supporting food banks that could efficiently provide nourishment to those in need. The Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee was established in 1982 and is one of 202 Feeding America affiliates in the United States. Today, that network serves millions across our U.S. of A.
From Humble Roots to a Higher Calling
Raised in a home where food insecurity was often a reality, Streno came to know the generosity of family and friends at a young age. Though it’s a distant memory now, her adolescent reality drove her to be the second in her family to graduate with a university degree, and ultimately to serve hundreds of thousands each year.
Her course to Second Harvest of East Tennessee was winding. When she graduated from college, she responded to an ad for the executive director’s position and actually received it. Despite what she referred to as “a gift,” she only held the job for a year until she moved away with her husband.
She reminded me that, “At that time there were very few women running anything in the region” and she was often brushed off with very little consideration for the people she was representing. She developed thick skin in that short year and realized persistence would be essential.
Seven years later, as if fate had been calling her home, she moved back to the area and received a call just a few months later to resume her role as executive director of the food bank.
A Return Home: Growing Second Harvest Food Bank of E.T.
Much had changed in those seven years. It was 1993, the organization had grown tremendously, and the need had multiplied exponentially. Streno slipped back into her role and this time she was here to stay.
In 1993, her annual budget was $350,000; today it’s $5 million. When reflecting on the growth, Streno describes it in rather sobering terms. “If someone had told me when I began that I would be responsible for raising 5 million annually, I never would have believed them. The truth is, we couldn’t meet the need then and we still can’t meet all the need today.”
Streno is up against daunting statistics and an even more frightening reality. One in four children in the East Tennessee community and one in five seniors are at risk of hunger. And she is certain to tell anyone who asks that, “The need is only going to become greater and those that aspire to be involved with non-profits in the future must be persistent.”
To combat the growing need, Streno, along with many dedicated staff members and volunteers have expanded from two to six feeding programs. Of the six programs, Streno is particularly close to the Food for Kids program. This program stemmed from a combination of need and what Streno describes as, “an amazing generosity of spirit.”
Many of the children Second Harvest of East Tennessee serves receive their most nutritious and filling meals through government subsidies in their school cafeterias throughout the week. Because of this, children were packing their school backpacks with snacks to feed themselves over the weekends.
With the need identified, Streno and her team went to work to provide for these community children and co-founded a weekend backpack program. The focus of the program is providing children with the food necessary to feed themselves over the weekend. Today, the program has grown from serving a single county to provide for 11,500 children in 240 schools spread over 18 counties.
Preparing for a Growing Need
Looking toward the future, Streno’s greatest focus is on nutrition education for those served by Second Harvest. Through educational classes and workshops, she hopes to create positive habits that parents will pass along to their children and stop what she described as, “an unhealthy cycle.”
Much has changed over the years at Second Harvest of East Tennessee. The building has grown, there are more volunteers, and more donors but the one constant is the need. As she takes on each new day, Streno clings to that need and the compassion of her community to drive her passion to help those in their toughest moments.
As a member of the foodservice industry, Streno is always looking to increase the network that provides for her community. Whether you are one of Elaine’s neighbors or reading this from across the country, consider the role your restaurant, family, or friends can serve in providing for your neighbors.
For more information on Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee or to locate a Second Harvest Food Bank in your area, visit their parent organization, Feeding America, at www.FeedingAmerica.org.