- lbs of food
- individuals served
Last year, New Orleans was ravaged by the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic put an abrupt stop to the tourism industry, fueling an all-time high for food insecurity in the city. As the crisis unfolded, Erica Chomsky-Adelson, who’d had 10+ years in the disaster response space, stepped up to meet the growing need for a no-barrier food distribution model in her community—and Culture Aid NOLA was born, serving over 5,000 meals in their first week.
In the year and a half since, the small nonprofit has continued to scale its work and now serves 30,000 pounds of food each week, while staying focused on making this form of aid sustainable, accessible, and stigma-free.
And when Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans in late August of 2021, Culture Aid NOLA got creative to meet the challenge.
What follows is an interview with Erica Chomsky-Adelson, Founder of Culture Aid NOLA, on the organization’s response to Hurricane Ida in New Orleans, edited for length and clarity.
What was your initial response when you learned of Hurricane Ida? How did the work evolve in the following days?
We started tracking what would eventually become Hurricane Ida several days before the storm so we could put our plans in place. We had to close up and take inventory of both our distribution sites, cover everything in plastic sheeting, and figure out where we were going to meet and how we’d get in touch with each other—all the plans you make when you know something catastrophic is coming to your doorstep.
On Monday, just a few hours after the storm had passed, several of us met up at a bar downtown that we had designated as a meeting point. It was several of our partners that we’d worked with before and we were sitting outside on a bench, grateful for making it through the storm and trying to figure out what our response would look like.
Our original plan was to plug in with some of our partners to support and amplify their efforts using local knowledge and organizing principles. But no one expected Ida and in the disaster response world, there's no plan for a category four strike on an unevacuated city. Everything that's ever been talked about for something of this magnitude has counted on feeding first responders for just the first few weeks. And now everyone in southeast Louisiana is in the dark.
So we were sitting there [on the bench] and someone from the Link Restaurant Group drove up and threw open the doors to a refrigerated van and said, "I have all this meat. Can you cook it?" because they were cleaning out the coolers of local area restaurants. And universally, we all said yes. Then, as other chefs and restaurants started hearing that we were saying yes, they started cleaning out their coolers and coming to drop off food too. Within a matter of days, we had cleaned out the coolers and walk-ins of about 125 restaurants.
We had to turn on a dime for some of the infrastructure needed to do this. We had to scramble for refrigerated trucks to hold all this product and pickup trucks to go pick it up from the restaurants. We had to organize enough volunteers to cook. We were borrowing grills from people's porches. It was insane. We ended up serving about 4,000 meals a day from the sidewalk. We had smokers from competition barbecue teams and borrowed grills. We set up a sandwich line behind the bar—all with just 80 volunteers that moved through in the span of a few days.
It was this really beautiful high energy effort. I think what made it particularly special was some of the food that we got. We emptied out Emeril's cooler, and Patois, and Bacchanal and all of the Link restaurants and Mason Hereford's Turkey and the Wolf, all these amazing, internationally known places—and all of a sudden we've got their walk-ins. We were grilling steaks and shrimp and probably smoked about fifty briskets. It was really rewarding to be able to serve something contrary to what we usually think of as relief food, like sausage, rice and beans, which may keep you alive to some extent to nourish your body, but it won't nourish your soul.
Our work has always been centered around food with respect, food with dignity, food worth eating. I'm really glad that we were able to carry that mission through in this response. We also had a DJ. We set up a free mobile charging station off of a generator. We had tap dancers and singers at one point—we had such a good time. It's the energy. And I think the community really, really appreciated that.
We started winding down operations on Sunday, September 5th. Power had started slowly coming back on and we were working through the donated food. But now, we were looking at a city of people who haven't made a lot of money in the past year and a half due to COVID, have spent through everything they have, and lost everything that they had managed to scrape together. Empty freezers, empty fridges, empty pantries, roof damage—all of these costs that very few people in our city were prepared to front and wait for FEMA. So we decided to do something about it.
On September 6th, we found two semi-trucks worth of fresh product: chicken and fruits and veggies, and more. We were able to convince them to come to us. So now it's Monday night, this product needs to be moved by Wednesday. And we're sitting on 75,000 pounds of fresh food. What are we going to do?
We planned a festival-sized event with those two semi trucks. City Park, which is one of the most beautiful places in the city, allowed us to use their grounds to hold the distribution. We had two brass bands, two DJs, and about 250 volunteers. And we did it all in about thirty-six hours with two staff members. We still didn't have power. We were working off of a solar-charged cell phone.
When we first went out there, we felt really good about our two semi trucks. Then we saw the line. We were expecting about four to five miles of cars and already at mid-morning—our event was supposed to start at around two—the police at the end of the line called and told us we were at eight miles. That was a bit of a scary, unexpected challenge in the midst of an already fairly chaotic day. Fortunately, given our work with some of our previous long-standing partners like Second Harvest Food Bank, we were able to call in a third truck on an emergency basis and push out even more food. We ended up with just under 100,000 pounds of food that day. We only turned fifty cars away at the end of the day. We fed them all.
How were you able to get the word out about this so that so many people could find you?
I've got one full-time staff member and two part time staff members so we’re a very small, bare-bones nonprofit. And one of the smartest things we did right at the beginning was evacuate half the team. We kept myself and our site manager behind to respond immediately and we sent our Operations Manager and Communications Manager out of town. That turned out to be the secret to our success because we were able to run ground operations to respond quickly with a high degree of trust in each other, while at the same time knowing that the rest of our team could get the word out, produce content, get it on NationBuilder, track and optimize posts, put out the call for volunteers, write grants and develop fundraising plans. I think the only reason that worked was because this website is so easy to use. They’d each had some familiarity with NationBuilder since we use it for just about everything, but being able to learn all these new tricks with it, while separated from the rest of the team, while under extreme stress and on the road, while doing it on the fly was really valuable.
Our entire leadership philosophy is based on building a culture of kindness and trust, so having that kind of framework in place allowed the team to pivot to respond, brief each other, and work together on a lot of really cool things.
What were the key NationBuilder features that played into your response effort?
We were able to very, very quickly put up a donation page. That was huge. That template being mostly made, easy to replicate, properly branded, with a progress bar added in was pretty key to our success. Getting that up early and adding it as the main link to the website—on WordPress, that would have taken quite some time. We had it up in 20 minutes.
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We were able to multitask and share responsibility on some of the emails that were going out. One person could go in and edit it and test it over here, then send it from different broadcasters to different audiences. That really made a huge difference. We used it for signing up volunteers, which meant that we had to cancel all of our regularly scheduled shifts, and switch everyone over to these new response shifts. We were able to do that because our volunteers were already familiar with the sign-up system. It wasn't as shocking for them as having to find a brand new Google Form. It was familiar and safe.
All of a sudden we had 250 volunteers signed up and we realized very quickly we were going to need a lot more leadership for those volunteers, so we sorted the volunteer list by social capital and identified the people at the top who were already familiar with our brand and our operations, and called them in early to lead small teams of new volunteers.
Instead of having to read through a 250 person list and see what names we thought we recognized, we could easily see the top twenty that had interacted with us in the past, click them each and say, ‘okay, this person has done fifteen volunteer shifts with us—they're a leader. This person loves us but really only donated money and got these points but has never been on site, so we're going to scooch them to the bottom and send them a special donor newsletter to try and get the word out.’ It was incredibly efficient for that.
We shifted operations pretty rapidly at one point from rescuing restaurant coolers and cooking meals to our “Fill the Fridge” program and were able to text people and tell them the new plan which was extremely important. At this point, we're still looking at a city without power. Cell phones were having a really big problem. Both AT&T and T-Mobile were down intermittently and the only network up was Verizon which could accept text messages but couldn't get online. If we’d only had email and internet capability, we would have lost a lot of people, but being able to text them and have that actually get through was huge for us and I didn't see very many other organizations doing that apart from the actual city government.
When we were posting on all our social channels, having it aggregated into our dashboard and activity feed allowed multiple team members to keep an eye on responses, see which posts were getting a ridiculous amount of likes, and think through how to replicate that success. When one of our team members was on the road back home, it allowed our other team member to keep an eye on that and be able to feed some of the data and reactions back to the other. We also made great use of NationBuilder’s phone number feature because it would forward to my phone and sometimes I was able to take the call, sometimes I wasn't, but being able to have my entire staff look at those calls and listen to the voicemails and then respond on their own was crucial. We used everything. We couldn't have done this had we had to have someone who knew the ins and outs of this or that or had to have the WordPress editing login or had to figure out a brand new template for everything.
We were able to just click and hit and that was the reason why we were so, so successful. We were cooking within about six hours of the wind stopping and it took several other larger and better funded organizations about 24 to 36 hours to get moving. And we only did it because we had this. We knew who our people were and how to get in touch with them. That's the most important thing NationBuilder has given us. It's not just a CRM, or website builder, or donations management, or social scheduling—it’s a way to build and maintain true community, and community is everything in times of crisis and change.