FeaturesFeb/Mar 2014 Issue

Disaster Relief: How Storm-Season Planning Can Be a Life-Saver

Insight from Sandy

In the aftermath of recent storms, the food allergy community has pulled together to gather donations of allergy-safe foods throughout the country. Social media makes it easier to connect volunteers with needy families during natural disasters.

The challenge, organizers say, is to find local contacts to determine exactly which areas are affected and where to send donations. Identifying a central location that can handle truck deliveries and store pallets of food, along with a local volunteer who can organize thousands of pounds of donations, is essential.

For individuals in a storm’s path, preparation is paramount, says Mary Casey-Lockyer, RN, senior associate for disaster health services at the American Red Cross. It’s important to put a process in place before disaster strikes.

Casey-Lockyer urges families to have a plan and an emergency kit that includes water and safe, shelf-stable food. It’s also helpful to have a written checklist of what you need to grab in an emergency, such as medication or medical devices.

“You might be very upset. It could be a quick evacuation. In the heat of the moment, it’s helpful to have a checklist,” she says. “You might not think to check if your daughter’s inhaler is still in her school backpack.”

Recent devastating storms, such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012, have alerted people with food allergies, celiac disease and asthma to the risk of losing their access to a safe food supply.

Lisa Giuriceo, leader of the Food Allergy and Asthma Support Group of North Jersey, had her “ah-ha” moment after living in northern New Jersey with no power for three days after Sandy hit.

While she had stocked up on safe, nonperishable items for her daughter with multiple food allergies before the storm, Giuriceo started to panic about having enough food to feed her family, especially after she had to throw out everything in her freezer.

Shopping at a local supermarket, she spotted eight boxes of gluten-free pancake mix and multiple boxes of rice milk and piled them into her shopping cart. Then she stopped, realizing that another family might need the items. With many roads impassable and trucks not making deliveries to supermarkets, the food on that shelf might be all that was available for a while.

“I thought, we have to do something to help,” Giuriceo says.

So she worked with the offices of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey, made calls to food banks in harder-hit areas of the state and contacted “free-from” companies, such as Enjoy Life Foods, which sent pallets of allergy-friendly products to food banks.

In Brooklyn, New York, Heidi Bayer’s home was unaffected by Sandy but storm evacuees were being housed nearby. Bayer visited the shelters to see if anyone needed special-diet food or formula.

“That’s when I realized, if something happened to my family and we needed assistance, we would need so much,” says Bayer, who has a teenage daughter with multiple food allergies.

Giuriceo and Bayer mobilized support groups, manufacturers and social media to gather safe food donations for the immediate needs at hand but they both knew there had to be a more permanent solution.

“There needed to be a better way to be prepared when these disasters happen,” Bayer says. “Sandy was one of those events that showed us what was needed.”

As a board member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) and chair of its Kids With Food Allergies (KFA) board of advisers, Bayer was instrumental in launching KFA’s Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Committee. This committee relies on volunteers throughout the United States to create contacts with food allergy support group leaders in affected areas. They ask manufacturers for allergy-friendly food donations, talk to local food banks about receiving donations, make sure people with asthma get what they need (such as a safe place to stay free of pets or mold, access to medications and breathing devices), and post the information on social networks so people can send donations or locate safe food.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy when Internet service was not working and cell phone service was spotty, food banks were grateful to receive donations from the food allergy and celiac communities, says Marion Lynch, marketing and communications coordinator for the FoodBank of Monmouth & Ocean Counties. Boxes shipped to the food bank were marked “allergy friendly,” to ensure the donations were handled properly, Lynch says.

“The products were distributed through our network. They were definitely needed by many of our neighbors who were impacted by the storm,” Lynch says. “For many who suffered losses from Sandy, the economic impact will last for several years. Because these foods tend to cost more, the donations were greatly appreciated by the families we serve.”

Next: Stocked Pantry

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