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One on One: Shelly Elfstrom

Program manager, America's Second Harvest

Shelly Elfstrom
Fiona Robinson
December 01, 2005

Disaster relief took on a whole new meaning for folks in the seafood industry when Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast in late August. Businesses across America pitched in to provide food and shelter for the millions displaced by the disaster, with food-bank donations organized by America’s Second Harvest — The Nation’s Food Bank Network.

America’s Second Harvest, or A2H, as it’s known internally, by Nov. 7 had served 41.9 million meals of food donated for hurricane-disaster relief. Founded in 1979, A2H is the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the United States.

Shelly Elfstrom, A2H’s program manager for protein initiatives, is the woman behind the scenes handling the seafood donations and arranging transportation to the Gulf and 200 food banks in the America’s Second Harvest national network. The seafood industry, through SeaShare in Bainbridge, Wash., contributed more than 300,000 pounds of product to A2H’s hurricane relief. Many of those donations were from companies that had never donated to the agency before, says Elfstrom.

Elfstrom’s work experience made her highly qualified to work with seafood at A2H. She joined the nonprofit in 1998 after working six years at wholesaler Chicago Fish House. Prior to her wholesale career, Elfstrom worked three years in the retail grocery industry.

America’s Second Harvest began working with SeaShare in 1994 to source seafood for its nationwide food-bank network. SeaShare provides a direct link to the industry for A2H. In fiscal year 2005, SeaShare was a major source of valuable protein to the organization, second only to industry giant ConAgra Foods.

I spoke with Elfstrom in early November to check on A2H’s progress in getting seafood products to food banks in the Gulf.

What seafood products were donated to America’s Second Harvest for Hurricane Katrina and Rita disaster relief?

Elfstrom: Canned tuna and salmon. Frozen and refrigerated product for disaster relief is difficult to handle, depending on the effects of the disaster. We did get some [seafood] pátés from some companies that were clearing their warehouses. But that’s more of a luxury item in a disaster. We look for Spam-type items. With a hurricane as devastating as Katrina, people did not have homes, and businesses did not have power, including our food banks. Shelf-stable product was the only product we could distribute.

[Tuna manufacturers] gave us a truckload of first-line product. We also purchased six truckloads from them. We’re not in the business to buy food — donation is our first priority. But all of our food banks have to supplement the gaps in supply by purchasing food.

How many seafood meals were served during the hurricane relief effort?
We are still conducting relief efforts and will continue to do so for many months. [More than] 300,000 pounds of seafood has been donated since Katrina — that’s approximately 1.2 million seafood meals.

What is A2H’s definition of “meal?”

A meal is defined as 1.28 pounds — that’s with everything. A seafood serving size is 3 to 4 ounces, or four meals per pound.

What food products are on a food bank’s “wish list” for disaster relief?
Shelf-stable products such as hand-held snacks, protein, bottled water, canned goods (pop-top cans are desirable), baby food, formula and peanut butter.

Are seafood donations still needed for the relief effort?
Yes. Shelf-stable still remains desirable as well as frozen, easy-to-prepare, oven-ready product such as fish sticks, fish patties or any kind of value-added product, like a fillet of fish.

Are there seafood products that weren’t donated to the recent hurricane relief efforts that would be good to have in the future?
Our relief efforts [for both Katrina and Rita] are not over, and there is still time for companies to donate. Our freezer capacity is opening up, and products such as fish sticks are easy to prepare and would be well suited for relief.

Other product that would be good to have on hand immediately post-disaster would be individual foil-pouch tuna or salmon; canned is fine, too.

Was A2H prepared for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort?
We were very prepared. Prior to this we had formed formal relationships with the American Red Cross, so we were actually onsite with them, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Salvation Army.

Are food banks surprised to see seafood in their product mix?
Yes. The level of donations does not meet demand nor is seafood as a source of protein as common as ground beef or poultry.

Is SeaShare the only seafood source for A2H?
We have a huge corporate relationship with ConAgra. We might get seafood mixed in with other items that they donate. But they’re not considered a SeaShare partner.

Describe your role with A2H.
I’ve been reaching out to the top 25 seafood companies to talk with them about partnering [with SeaShare and A2H]. I started asking for donations of excess inventory and outer-case damages.

Seashare went for strategic partnerships. Fishermen are donating salmon that are harvested for roe — that’s unique to the seafood industry; we don’t do this with any other industry.

We needed to talk with seafood companies about inventory. Ocean Cuisine wanted to help with Rita. I’ve tried to work with them on a donation level; they gave two truckloads of product for hurricane relief. Then we educate them about strategic programs we’ve already set up. [OCI] may develop products at a low cost for A2H in the future.

What do you like best about coordinating seafood products for A2H?
We have the opportunity to educate people on the nutritional value of seafood as a source of protein as well as preparation and handling.

Many of our clients may not have had the means to buy seafood [in the past] so lack of familiarity is very common.

We know that we are providing a high-quality, highly nutritious source of protein.

We are also increasing our efforts to introduce seafood to children.

What is A2H’s biggest challenge coordinating seafood donations?
Transportation. We pick up product free of charge from the donor and transport it all over the country, depending on where the need is. And everything is transported by truck.

Does A2H get a price break on gas?
No, we’re paying for gas just like the rest of the industry. A recent shipment from New Bedford, Mass., to the West Coast cost $6,000.

What are your goals for seafood donations to A2H?
We’re getting into long-term planning for regular donations. We’d love to see more nice white fillets. We know from working with other protein industries that it’s just hard to get. [Manufacturers] use every piece [of an animal] for something, and margins are small, so protein is hard to get.

We are working with companies to produce a product like a private label that retailers would offer. It’s something we’d purchase. Donations are first, but once we’ve exhausted those opportunities, we want to feed people fish. We’re getting nutrition-focused and are feeding people nutritious meals.
 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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